Famous Last Words: Don’t Blindly Trust the Internet!
My personal definition of WWW is Wild West Web.
What triggered this column was a story in The New York Times titled, "Closed, Says Google, but Shops' Signs Say Open." Writer David Segal described how businesses listed as "Closed" on Google are actually open and thriving.
All it takes is a mischief-maker to enlist enough accomplices to email Google Places and report that a competitor's business "is permanently closed;" whereupon, it is listed as "reportedly closed." Traffic suddenly nosedives and the business owner can't figure out why.
Lies Grow Legs on the Internet
Last November, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN) told CNN's Anderson Cooper that President Obama's trip to India was costing taxpayers $200 million a day. "He's taking 2,000 people with him," she said. "He'll be renting out over 870 rooms in India. And these are 5-star hotel rooms at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel."
FactCheck.org pointed out that the statement was preposterous—that the entire Afghan War cost $190 million a day.
But the damage was done. The Obama Administration will be forever tarred with a $2 billion (the bogus estimated cost of the entire trip) boondoggle.
At the time of writing this, Googling the phrase "Asia trip $200 million a day," netted me 16.9 million results. And these stories will be there for decades to come.
Op-Ed columnist Thomas Friedman of The New York Times quoted Mark Twain's line from more than 100 years ago: "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes" in his column about the Bachmann yarn, titled "Too Good to Check."
If you discover that an untruth has been perpetrated about you or your company, one solution is a website—iCorrect.com—recently launched by British department store founder Sir David Tang.
Calling itself "the first website to correct permanently any lies, misinformation and misrepresentations that permeate in cyberspace," it promises to protect "one's reputation in cyberspace forever." Individuals pay $1,000 a year; for businesses, the tab is $5,000 per annum.
Responsibility for Your Website Means Responsibility for User Comments
Recently, I heard of a website that changed its business model to allow outside comments to be posted with no editorial supervision to save money and time. While this may keep comment publishing in real time, this policy can make you the victim of serious embarrassment if editors are too hands-off with this system and errant comments see the light of day.
One of the most perceptive bloggers on the subject of the Internet is Anil Dash. He makes no bones about what he really thinks:
How many times have you seen a website say "We're not responsible for the content of our comments."? I know that when you webmasters put that up on your sites, you're trying to address your legal obligation. Well, let me tell you about your moral obligation: Hell yes, you are responsible ... you're the person who made it possible, it's 100% your fault. If you aren't willing to be a grown-up about that, then that's okay, but you're not ready to have a web business. Businesses that run cruise ships have to buy life preservers. Companies that sell alcohol have to keep it away from kids. And people who make communities on the web have to moderate them.
Dash's rules of the road:
- Have real humans dedicated to monitoring and responding to your community.
- Have policies about what is and what isn't acceptable behavior.
- Your website should have accountable identities—it is imperative to know the cred of the people whom you allow to talk to your readers. If writers don't want their actual names used, give them a pseudonym or handle, but know who they are.
- You should have a budget that supports having a good community.
Denny Hatch is a freelance direct marketing consultant and copywriter, and author of the Business Common Sense e-newsletter. Visit him at www.businesscommonsense.com or www.dennyhatch.com, or contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.