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Is There Value in the Right To Be Anonymous Commenters?

There’s been a lot of talk about the so-called right to be forgotten lately, but the Virginia Supreme Court this week agreed to look at another type of online user right: the right to anonymous commenting.

Hadeed Carpet Cleaning is suing Yelp to unmask seven commenters who allegedly left highly critical comments about the cleaning company, including that they charge twice as much as advertised. It’s not just that they can’t take criticism - the company does not believe the commenters were actual customers. But Yelp has argued that businesses should not have to unmask identities without evidence of libel and that Hadeed’s suspicion is not enough to demonstrate defamation.

An early court decision backed Hadeed and it will be interesting to see what the supreme court rules, but, defamation and libel aside, this brings up an interesting example of how online anonymity can be abused.

We’ve featured a few posts on this blog discussing online anonymity (and pseudonymity, for that matter) and how it is often wrongfully used to perpetuate racist, sexist and other derogatory commentary. On the other hand, in what some call the Age of Surveillance, anonymity provides us all with a modicum of privacy. Plus, as Judith Donath has pointed out, tying identity to everything online can have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression. Philosophical, political and social commentary could be stifled.

And now the Hadeed case brings with it another interesting angle to the online anonymity debate. What if said anonymous commenters are, say, Hadeed’s competition? Or past associates with an axe to grind? Or simply trolls?

But on the other side, should Hadeed really care about these anonymous comments? Who would you be more likely to trust an endorsement from: an anonymous source online, or your friends on social media? I think we’d all agree it’s the latter.

I often wonder about those positive reviews as much as the negative ones. When I see a good review from someone I don’t know, I ask myself if that’s just puffery. Couldn’t that just be an employee posing as a customer?

Luckily, there’s a funny side to puffed up pieces. Let us not forget the famed “wolf t-shirt” reviews on Amazon. Replete with almost 2,300 five-star reviews, this kitsch t-shirt has gained almost cult status. As “Amazon Customer” wrote in 2008, “This item has wolves on it which makes it intrinsically sweet and worth 5 stars by itself, but once I tried it on, that’s when the magic happened.”

Or, what about the pragmatically-designed banana slicer?  Nearly 53,000 people found SW3K’s review helpful —“No more winning for you, Mr. Banana!” For “Mrs Toledo,” the slicer “saved her marriage.”

But joking aside, it’s fair to say the closer we all get to pseudonymous reviews, and the further we get from purely anonymous reviews, the more likely we are to trust the source. Really, it’s part of a bigger picture involving appropriate online behavior—or netiquette—and trust.

Clearly, businesses and consumers take Yelp reviews seriously. I certainly use them to locate good restaurants and bars when travelling. In a piece on Philz Coffee on Friday, CEO Jacob Jabar realized his stores didn’t need highly analytical smartphone-tracking technology because the most valuable consumer data he received stemmed from Yelp reviews and a media sentiment analysis tracking tool called NewBrand Analytics.

Perhaps, Hadeed gets a lot of business from Yelp, and perhaps, they’ve lost business because of these bad reviews. Plus, I can understand that Hadeed is fighting for its business reputation, but as we all—the general public and businesses alike—get more savvy and socialized online, I hope we take such anonymous reviews with a grain of salt.

Does anyone really make a decision based on some anonymous disgruntled reviewer? Can it be defamation if no one takes it seriously?

Written By

Jedidiah Bracy, CIPP/E, CIPP/US

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