One of the best shows on radio or television is NPR’s “On the Media”, a production of WNYC public radio that, in their own words, “explores how the media ‘sausage’ is made,” by delving into the issues and examining the controversies at the heart of the stories being covered by the news media today. The show’s hosts–Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield–and its staff do an unparalleled job investigating and researching the topics on which they report, and (usually) they don’t shy away from asking the tough but incredibly important questions to which the audience deserves answers.
Because of OTM’s reputation for providing stories with real “teeth” to them, it is especially unfortunate that Bob Garfield’s recent interview with Yelp co-founder Jeremy Stoppleman sounded less like an interview and more like an on-air promo piece for the popular online review site. In the segment that preceded the Stoppleman interview (titled, “Smirch Engine”), Garfield talked to various professors and legal scholars about the problems associated with allowing anyone to say anything in the public (and often permanent) world of cyberspace, where people often write things about others that they would never say to the person’s face, and often on websites that do nothing to substantiate the claims these contributors have made. Scholars label this propensity to smear others over the Internet the “online disinhibition effect,” and one can find examples of it everywhere. As Garfield put it, “Yes, for all its revolutionary benefits, the Internet is also a malice engine, the men’s room wall writ unimaginably large – but with one devastating difference. You can scrub the bathroom wall.”
Such phrasing seemed designed to make listeners think about the implications of sites that provide a platform for “average people” to provide their opinions on the quality of their experience with a given restaurant, local business, or service. Garfield’s remark begs the questions: What are the potential consequences of allowing people to say things that could ruin someone else’s reputation–or ultimately, even their livelihood–and what, if anything, should be done to protect those who might suffer the wrath of some random whack job with an ax to grind?
Garfield failed to pose such questions in the Yelp interview, however. Sure, Garfield offered the appearance of making Stoppleman think rather than spout what sounded like lines memorized from Yelp’s own legal documents, but these attempts went nowhere since Garfield repeatedly took Stoppleman’s answers at face value, never pressing further. Case in point: When Garfield asked how Yelp ensures that a bad review of one business isn’t written by a rival company, he accepted Stoppleman’s argument that it would be “very, very difficult to create a personality on Yelp that does not reflect a real person. And that, essentially, is our foundation. We’re not an anonymous review site. Most of the contributors have very deep profiles and reputations on Yelp.”
But is it really all that difficult to “create a personality on Yelp”? Often, job listings under Craigslist’s “Writing Gigs” heading are those seeking people to write product and/or business reviews on various review websites. If someone works for a PR firm and is truly a good writer capable of appropriating a variety of voices, then he or she could easily create a seemingly “authentic” voice on a given site, even infusing reviews with typos and various errors to make them look like they were written by a “regular user.” Stoppleman can say whatever he wants about his website’s commitment to providing “non-anonymous” reviews, but that claim just doesn’t hold water when it is so easy to create a phantom personality on Yelp that would allow someone to write reviews for a variety of businesses that are paying that person to do so.
Indeed, Yelp’s own staff has been accused of doing just that. There’s also the matter of that pesky lawsuit, recently settled out of court, in which a chiropractor sued a “Yelper,” claiming that his review was “defamatory” because its claims of poor billing practices on the part of the chiropractor were false. But Garfield didn’t ask Stoppleman about that, either.
Following the interview with Stoppleman was a story about how some business owners have creatively dealt with bad Yelp reviews. At the popular San Francisco restaurant, Delfina, staff members fought back by wearing t-shirts featuring quotes (in particular, the most useless or vague ones, such as, “this place sucks”) from bad Yelp reviews.
Michelle Tripp, who commented in defense of Yelp on OTM’s comments page says on her blog that the staff’s response was a “Clever idea,” but then argues that, “the opportunity to improve and connect with some very important customers was lost. By taking a complaint and essentially turning it into a joke, the owner made a statement. A big one. Basically that he doesn’t take his customers seriously.” But I’m afraid it is Ms. Tripp who has missed the point here.
First, what kind of feedback is, “This place sucks.”? How should the staff at Delfina have taken that information to improve and evolve? Would we expect a student’s writing to improve if her teacher read the student’s paper, assigned a grade of ‘F’, and simply wrote, “Your paper sucks!” on the last page? Probably not. And yet such is the kind of feedback so often found on Yelp reviews: too vague to prove especially useful to a business owner who might want to take the feedback into consideration. Take as an example this review, from “Jen D.” (Remember–Yelp is NOT an “anonymous review site”–you all are familiar with Jen D., right? ’cause that couldn’t be anybody…) Her review (copied here completely verbatim, typos and all) is for a chocolate shop in downtown San Francisco called Cocoa Bella.
“Finally tried some chocolates from here – one each. Mine was OK, but not great, the other was excellent. However it took for EVER just to buy two chocolates – we almost left three times (we thought were were about to get helped but nope…). Everything looks so beautiful though. Wish the service was sped up, because I cannot see waiting that long just for a chocolate again.”
This is her entire review. It’s bad enough that she is assessing the quality of a chocolate shop having tried only two of the hundreds of chocolates they carry, but even worse is that she doesn’t even say what they were, or why she thought one was “excellent” while the other was merely “OK.” Such reviews are remarkably common on Yelp, where people will say things like, “This place was OK. Service was a bit rushed. My entree was fine,” but will include no real specifics on how the “rushed” service affected the dining experience, or why the person felt the food was “fine,” but not amazing.
Stoppleman’s answer to these concerns would likely be that those using Yelp to find restaurants, dog groomers, or even a doctor can browse through the reviews to look for ones that are more useful and thorough. Such is the power of “word of mouth, amplified.” But true word of mouth–the recommendation one gets from a friend, co-worker, or family member (or, indeed, a respected restaurant critic)–is ultimately far more powerful than a thousand reviews that say things like, “It’s good, not great,” by someone who then awards the same restaurant with three stars.
Of course, questions of usefulness and writing quality eclipse the deeper issues associated with online “flames.” What OTM explored in “Smirch Engine” is the far more relevant and tricky question: When everyone has the ability to publicly but anonymously say whatever they want about another individual, what recourse does the individual have to try to get that content removed? As Americans, we all get squeamish when we think about having our own voice silenced, and most of us feel that all speech is truly worth being protected, even the speech that makes us a bit queasy inside. But it would be unwise to dismiss people who have been defamed online by saying that they just shouldn’t take the sites seriously. Kurt Opsahl of the Electronic Frontier Foundation made just such an argument when he told Garfield that, “if you see somebody say that so-and-so is a criminal on a site that is filled with hyperbole and bile, how much credence should you really give it? Not much.”
Agreed. But OTM has itself reported on the brain’s propensity to hold on to misinformation, even when that misinformation has been shown to be incorrect. And so if we consider a site such as RateMyProfessor.com, which allows anonymous reviews and has no safeguards that prevent the same person from writing multiple reviews about one instructor, we can imagine how Opsahl’s advice might be easier said than practiced. And indeed, RateMyProfessor has the same problem as Yelp: most instructors have so many reviews that few visitors will sift through all–or even many–of them, especially if they are using the site to guide them toward deciding from whom to take a course. If the top four reviews, those visible on the first page, are all bad (and may in fact all be written by the same person), students visiting that page could have a very skewed idea of what the instructor is like. What’s more, an employer doing a Google search on an applicant might see the bad reviews and find their assessment of the candidate to be colored by that information, no matter how much the employer might be trying to do otherwise.
These are the scenarios that cause people to be concerned about the free-wheeling nature of online review sites and the complete lack of accountability associated with those who write the reviews. One does not expect “On the Media” to produce the answers to these tough questions, but fans of the show most certainly expect that these issues will be explored in greater depth than they were in Garfield’s interview. These concepts are so far-reaching and so complicated, in fact, that they merit ongoing attention. One hopes, then, that OTM will continue to focus on what it means to have and enforce individual rights in the digital age, and that they will do so with kind of attention and incisive commentary that have always been the show’s trademarks.