Seeking Justice Against Bad Business — Blogosphere Style
A few weeks ago, Sony BMG suffered a public relations nightmare sparked by a blogger for its use of hidden DRM software in people’s computers. The latest company to face the wrath of the blogosphere is PriceRitePhoto.com, an online merchant of cameras. From Online Media Daily:
The blogger . . . wrote on his blog, Digital Connection, that a PriceRitePhoto.com sales rep tried to sell him accessories he didn’t want, and then when he refused, told him the camera he had ordered was out of stock–an experience that many other customers report having in customer reviews on Yahoo! Shopping and PriceGrabber.com.
The call became heated, the blogger said, when he told the rep he was going to write an article about the experience for his blog. “I told him I was planning to write an article about it. That’s all I said. Immediately the guy went ballistic on me,” he said in a telephone interview.
He posted an account of his experience on Digital Connection, and also mentioned that he had found the retailer through Yahoo! Shopping. As of Wednesday, PriceRitePhoto.com still appeared on Yahoo! Shopping with a rating of four stars out of a possible five, but by Thursday, the site had been delisted.
He also posted a link to the story on a community-driven news site, Digg.com, and the story ballooned from there. The blog, Digital Connection, which regularly receives roughly 5,000 unique visitors per day, garnered over 125,000 visits on Wednesday and Thursday.
Howard Baker, a manager with PriceRitePhoto.com, said the business had suffered “millions of dollars” worth of damages in the last two days, apparently at the hands of consumer vigilantes who had read the Digital Connection post.
“In the last couple of days there was one disgruntled customer that posted a blog that caused thousands of people to come out of the woodwork and jam our Web site,” said Baker–citing viruses, denial-of-service attacks, and thousands of prank calls. . . .
There are also issues about whether PriceRitePhoto.com’s online reviews had been gamed prior to this incident:
Despite hundreds of negative, one-star reviews posted on PriceGrabber.com and Yahoo! Shopping, PriceRitePhoto.com managed to maintain a high rating–four stars out of five on both sites–in part due to hundreds of equally positive, five-star reviews. The vast majority of the reviews posted on the shopping aggregator sites were either one star or five stars; few reviews told of a middling experience with the company. Yahoo! declined to speculate how the merchant maintained a four-star rating with a legion of one-star comments; a company spokesperson confirmed that Yahoo! Shopping removed PriceRitePhoto.com from its listings after an investigation.
PriceRitePhoto.com isn’t alone. Companies that mistreat customers are finding themselves attacked in the blogosphere:
Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer of buzz-monitoring firm Intelliseek, likened PriceRitePhoto.com’s blogosphere drubbing to the “Dell Hell” saga documented on Buzz Machine, the Web log of media figure Jeff Jarvis. Jarvis wrote about a bad experience he had with computer giant Dell’s customer service, creating an avalanche of negative comments about Dell and bringing to light hundreds of bad consumer experiences with Dell’s support staff.
“Moral of the story: this is a new age of accountability,” Blackshaw said. “We’re in a new consumer surveillance society where ostensibly benign and sneaky misdeeds are magnified for broader audiences.”
Blackshaw added that companies must be careful with their reputations on the Web, where a single consumer with a blog–even a relatively low-trafficked one–can catalyze a huge backlash on the blogosphere. “Credibility is fragile in the age of consumer-generated media, and none of us are immune to this,” he said. “The merchant makes a claim. The blogger puts it to the torture test, outs the contradiction, and the viral network does the rest of the dirty work.”
Using the blogosphere to attack bad business practices can certainly be a good thing. It gives people a forum to vent and makes companies more accountable. Recently, Eugene Volokh (law, UCLA) wrote about his abominable customer service with Dell, a company that in its advertisements touts its wondeful customer service. The post attracted numerous comments and links. Here, Dell mistreated the wrong customer, one who has a blog with tens of thousands of readers, many of whom are likely to buy or own computers. Instead of just being pushed around over the telephone by people reading from scripts and with little authority to do anything, customers can stand up for themselves and perhaps make the companies listen.
On the other hand, the justice meted out can quickly spiral out of control. It is one thing to criticize a company, but quite another to shut down or hack its website. The problem with justice on the Net is that it can often spiral into mob justice. The difficulty is, of course, finding the right balance between using the Internet to give consumers greater power and preventing attacks from being unjustly lodged or careening out of control.
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