Saturday, February 27, 2010

Complaining on the Internet

I posted recently about online businesses that have two phases: growing very popular but not profitable, and then converting the popularity into profit. It's arguably not the best business model: a sustainable income stream is generally preferable to a one time windfall, but it may allow online for-profit work that couldn't otherwise support itself.

In the comments, Meredith pointed us to Heather Armstrong's problems with Maytag. To recap, an influential 'Mommy Blogger' purchased a new washing machine that promptly broke, and was given the run around by repairmen and customer service reps. By taking her complaints into the public sphere her washing machine was promptly fixed, and another machine was donated to a shelter.

Heather Armstrong has a lot of sway in an important market segment, but the threat of bad online publicity isn't just being wielded by the twitterati. Comcast has a full time employee tasked with resolving any issues people bring up with its service on twitter. Various airlines do the same, with people reporting significantly better customer service by tweeting rather than talking directly to a representative. A complaint going viral (as happened in 2006 when a blogger recorded an AOL rep trying to prevent him from canceling his account) can cause serious damage to a company's reputation, so many are going to great lengths to avoid this.

This is a significant shift in power that should hopefully curb the worst abuses of corporations. Indeed, the power of the internet to communicate complaints to all corners of the globe is being used not just against corporations but against governments, educators and individuals who abuse their roles. The potential exists here to greatly enhance the transparency of the world, and to use the power of the masses to counterbalance localized power abuses.

But one needs only look at customer opinion aggregation services to realize that like everything else on the internet, there's a dark side. I googled "fake amazon reviews" to find something to link to, but the 1,000,000 hits speaks for itself (an aside: I find it interesting that Google-owned Blogger doesn't recognize 'googled' as a valid word). Companies post rave reviews of their products (sometimes a great many), and more sinisterly make up complaints and accusations against competitors. More than one business has been accused of extortion, Yelp being the most recent to face a class action lawsuit. Purportedly the company offered to take down negative reviews if a company would advertise with them, or conversely threaten to take down positive reviews. Any credible claim can influence corporate actions and consumer choices, not just true statements.

And while companies feel like fair targets, online complaints are also entwined with internet vigilantism. A Korean girl became the subject of abuse, eventually dropping out school, after she was filmed failing to clean up her dog's poop. Between misinformation and abusive use of correct information, it's not clear whether the soapbox of the internet is revealing truths about companies we otherwise would have missed, or if its muddying the water and making it increasingly difficult to understand the truth about a situation.

Perhaps worst of all is that the technology for automating the vocalization of opinions is continually being refined. As it currently stands, writing up fake reviews takes time. Many sites fight abuses by discounting users who post only a single opinion, or post rave reviews for every one of a company's product. Creating enough accounts, seeding with enough real reviews (over a reasonable span of time), and changing each review enough to hide that you wrote them all is work. But software could do it for you someday. Already a great many blogs exist that just use software to rewrite other people's posts.

I suspect we'll manage, though. Paid reviews and payola have a long history, and society has managed. Using reviews as extortion is starting to generate lawsuits, and I suspect over time the worst abuses will subside. More than anything, the internet is just a reflection of society, and the same critical evaluation required for interacting with the world is necessary online. It's not so much that the internet is unleashing new evils on the world, as its proving incapable of defeating the same old evils we're used to.

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