Business transparency or mob justice?


The recent case of a blogger who had a poor experience with a camera shop brings out the phenomenal power of the blogging. Thomas Hawk, a professional photographer, ordered a camera online from PriceRitePhoto. When he was called by a salesperson to sell him expensive accessories, which he turned down, they reportedly refused to deliver the camera and abused Hawk. Hawk blogged his tale. Many other bloggers wrote about the story. However most importantly, Hawk posted the story at Digg, a technology news site that allows its readers to vote on the most interesting stories. Thousands of votes for Hawk’s story later, the story spread onto top-ranked blogs such as Boing Boing, and on to the mainstream media. PriceRitePhoto was quickly delisted by Yahoo Shopping, CNET, and PriceGrabber, and is under investigation by the New York Attorney General.

In the aftermath, Hawk wrote:

I think that the popularity of this story comes in large part because the message resonates so strongly with all of us. Although in a sense it is the classic tale of David and Goliath retold, it is much more than this. We all have at one point or another in our lives been bullied and most of us have been defrauded or ripped off. The fact that so many times in the past there was nothing we could do about it makes us feel all that much better about the fact that in today’s internet and blogosphere we actually CAN do something about it.

Absolutely. In an intensely connected world, trustworthiness becomes completely visible. You used to be able to get away with doing poorly by your customers, because although you wouldn’t get much repeat business, there would always be suckers who hadn’t heard about you. The ability to do business this way is quickly disappearing. Customers have the right to complain, and today the ability to be heard by many. Partly as a result, there is no question that the general level of customer service in the economy will continue to improve at a significant pace.

Some would ask whether this is not a case of mob justice. We’ve only heard one side of the story, after all. This neglects the fact that PriceRitePhoto too has the right of reply, one that they haven’t chosen to exercise in a public forum. I wrote recently about how a scientist exercised his right of reply when he felt he was misquoted by a journalist. We now all have that power. Perhaps this was mob justice, yet the answer is not to cut off people’s ability to complain publicly about the service they receive. As with the case of the Sony DRM debacle, any small signal will get amplified in line with how strongly people respond to it. That is the world in which we live. And we are better for it. However what it certainly means is that companies today need to be in a position to respond effectively, by themselves engaging in the debate rather than simply being subject to it.