One of my clients found an apartment that she loved on Park Avenue -- with a balcony -- and for only $2100 a month. She went home that afternoon to collect paperwork and the application fees. The next thing I knew she was calling me frantically: after quickly Googling the address she found many unflattering reports about her future landlord -- on user generated sites review sites like Yelp.com and HowToRentInNYC.com. The reports called him a slumlord (on Park Avenue?) who raised rents considerably after the first year and was difficult to reach in times of trouble.
I tried to talk her off the ledge and explain that she should take what she read with a grain of salt. After all, no one in Manhattan likes their landlord. They take a quarter to half of our incomes and give us little in return but a roof over our head. She wasn't convinced, and wondered why people would write such things if they weren't true. (Heavens!) There was no clear answer, besides that people like to vent when they think they've been wronged, especially if it's anonymous and there's no accountability. Maybe they were just disgruntled tenants? Either way, my client backed out from the deal, and I was out a commission check.
This got me thinking about the role of these review sites. True, they can offer insight when there might be little else online. But if I were a small business owner, I would worry about what these sites said about me and how they were monitored. There are many out on the interwebs, both large and marginal. Users post anonymously, and there are no checks and balances to investigate if any of the claims are valid. In the case of my client and the landlord, the posts were pretty much untrue, and she gave up on an amazing Park Avenue apartment because of it, which is a shame.
In the United States we have laws -- libel laws -- that protect people from being defamed in the press. Generally speaking these laws protect journalists. After all, the first defense for libel is truth, followed by fair comment. People who claim to have been libeled have to prove that they've been named and that the statements caused them monetary loss or emotional pain. In the case of the review sites, owners are named and the statements could lead to monetary loss, but how does one proceed from there?
Since these review sites don't really fall under the umbrella of the press or traditional media, it is harder to track down the source of the statements. While these sites certainly add to the marketplace of ideas that we hold so dear here in America, what good are those ideas if they are unsubstantiated, untrue and ultimately do harm?
For instance, a few weeks ago while trying to find my doctor's phone number, I found a web site called RateMDs.com. My physician was on there, along with a slew of reviews, good, bad and ridiculous. Most women liked him, but one complained about being chastised for using a cell phone in the waiting room, despite there being a large sign forbidding it. (It may interfere with medical equipment.) Another woman complained about the doctor being cold and aloof. Really? An aloof doctor? Did she expect him to rub her feet and sing Kumbayah?
Many of these sites claim to monitor comments and remove ones that are abusive, but I think allowing postings that are unsubstantiated are abusive, at least to the target's reputation. True, you could get on the site yourself and refute every negative post, but who has the time? And who wants to argue with the crazy minds who take the time out of their day to rant and rave? While one shouldn't believe everything they read online, many people, who are otherwise intelligent, do. They're going to gravitate towards the negative.
Despite the guise that these sites aim to help the consumer make educated decisions, they could ultimately hurt them. Consumers have a right to accurate information, but the minutiae that some people post about shouldn't pass for legitimate insights, or even fact. Even in this age of the massive information that's at your fingertips online, sometimes when making a decision -- about anything from a restaurant to a doctor to even a landlord -- you just have jump let the net appear.