Last week I had one of those conversations that kept re-asserting itself in other discussions in the days that followed. The conversation itself was not confrontation nor was the subject matter particularly uncomfortable. Briefly, a colleague and I got into a broad discussion about companies leveraging user-generated content (UGC)–specifically consumer user reviews of and feedback on companies, products and professionals–in particularly novel and innovative ways. While it’s axiomatic that there are significant businesses being built collecting, analyzing and publishing this content (and a great deal of value being derived therefrom), we both struggled with some of the issues coming to light around the impact of this kind of information when propagated without strict quality controls and proper diligence to ensure authenticity and accountability.
With little argument, the notion of delivering “transparency” — in whatever form – has been at the underpinning of so many web-based business models in recent years. Additionally, with few exceptions, that goal has been a noble and appropriate one. Opacity has been the bane of so many consumers in so many markets that it scarcely makes sense to examine whether or not technology-enabled solutions seeking to open markets to greater and fairer competition have delivered long-lasting value to consumers. Let’s stipulate that they have and just move on.
Where things get sticky for me–and, I would imagine, for a growing number of investors and market participants — is the notion accepted almost as religion in some quarters that transparency is always and everywhere a market good. Heretical as it may sound, I think it is time that many in the venture and start-up community have an adult conversation about where and how full transparency is appropriate and about whether enough companies are living up to the weighty responsibilities that come with publishing information that can profoundly damage the reputations of businesses, professionals and/or their products or services.
Regular readers of Adventure Capitalist may recall that I have raised these issues in some form before, particularly in a piece on the state of online reputations. In that post, I drew some examples from the current legal (at least at that time) problems facing Yelp and similar sites from aggrieved small businesses. While I give Yelp and other sites credit for continually refining how reviews are collected, filtered and published, it is clear to me that we are a long way from being able to glean the true benefit of anonymous user reviews and feedback without exposing people and businesses to the risks that reckless and unfair user comments can pose. I remain deeply committed to the notion that platforms that enable users to call out by name and rate/review businesses while those users remain comfortably concealed behind the cloak of anonymity creates a sweeping invitation for mischief.
In the months since that original post on online reputations, I have received an alarming number of reports–both confirmed and anecdotal–about consumers engaging in troubling practices akin to extortion whereby demands are made for deep discounts and freebies that those consumers are not entitled to from local businesses. The not-so-thinly veiled threat is that the consumer(s) will trash the online reputation of those businesses if the demands are not met.
Again, I firmly believe that the majority of users and contributors to online review/reputation sites act responsibly. That said, more work has to be done by companies that reside at the intersection of online reviews and reputation so that all participants are held to the highest standard of ethics and accountability.
My hope is that this post will spur a discussion. I don’t purport to have an elegant solution to the problem inherent in user-generated reviews and feedback but I am becoming increasingly mindful of the backlash brewing in the small business community against online reputation and review platforms. I am also seeing some of the limits of transparency in specific marketplaces when the end result of that openness is not greater efficiencies and fairness in a given market but, rather, the same kind of unfair leverage, collusion and monopolistic power that transparency was meant to eradicate.