December 18, 2014 / 8:51 PM / 4 years ago

Buyer beware: Customer shaming has few boundaries

(Reuters) - Nobody who has ever had a customer service dispute wants to experience what happened to Ben Edelman, the Harvard Business School professor whose irate email to a Chinese restaurant went viral on social media and was chronicled by mainstream news outlets.

When Edelman, who is also an attorney, emailed the restaurant seeking triple damages for a $4 overcharge, he did not think about the social media implications. He did not think about his worldwide reputation. But he does now.

“It certainly came as a surprise to see these emails published,” Edelman said in an email to Reuters. “From my perspective, the most distressing aspect of the media coverage, and of having the emails circulated, was how few people seemed to understand, or even want to understand, my true motivations.”

Boston.com broke Edelman’s story on Dec. 9, and it was quickly picked up by other major media outlets. There were straight news stories, serious dissections of his legal arguments and personal insults against him on Twitter. By the next day, he had publicly apologized.

The cautionary tale for the rest of us is that anyone who flies off the handle about some customer service dispute might end up in the same predicament.

“With the right mix of ingredients those email threads can go viral and reach an audience of millions of people,” says Eric Goldman, a professor of internet law at Santa Clara University School of Law.

The real-time element of Twitter has helped elevate some of these episodes into virtual legends, like the rooftop breakup chronicled last year by New York comedian Kyle Ayers. The back-and-forth exchange went on for more than 40 minutes, all captured and shared by Ayers along with bits of commentary (here)

In September, Ryan Case, a television editor and director, tweeted more than 60 times over a four-hour period to document a passenger's intoxicated and sometimes racist rants (on.mash.to/1plHFYt). "She's incapable of being quiet, like a toddler but not cute," Case tweeted about the woman identified as "Nadia."

Airplanes seem to provide abundant fodder for the amusement of public shaming fans. There's even a "Passenger Shaming" Facebook with more than 288,000 Likes filled with photos of passengers wearing overly revealing clothing, leaving diapers and condoms on their seats, and putting their bare feet on headrests or the cabin wall (here).

Don’t we have a right to privacy? Not really, experts say.

“If you do something in public, it’s fair game for anyone to record it and share it with the world,” says Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center and dean of College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University.

We’ve always been able to talk about other people and how they act, he says. The only difference now is the immediate ways people can share means in which it can be shared.

So, what are the risks of speaking your mind and where are the lines drawn?

* Disputes by email

Paul Alan Levy, an internet free speech expert with the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, says by now it should be clear that anything you say in public or write in an email can be shared. Just ask anyone whose information was shared as part of the Sony incident.

While hacking is clearly illegal, it is legal for a business to do what the restaurant did with Edelman’s emails, unless there was a specific note that comments will be kept private. And, Levy notes, putting the word “confidential” on an email is meaningless.

*Posting to review sites

When commenting about a business on sites such as Yelp or TripAdvisor , experts note that to stay out of trouble stick to the facts and express opinions. What has caused problems for commenters, they say, are assertions that can’t be supported.

* Recording conversations or incidents

Recording something happening in plain view in a public place, whether with a smartphone or by transcribing, is legal, Paulson says. And, he says, so is sharing that information by live tweeting or posting it online.

But eavesdropping on a privileged conversation, like between a doctor and a patient, is not fair game.

* Using your blog to complain about bad service

Just about anyone can say just about anything they’d like, Paulson says, as long as it’s their opinion and not an allegation that can’t be supported. It’s one thing, he says, to complain you don’t like the taste of the food at a restaurant and quite another to accuse them of using questionable ingredients.

“In a nutshell, don’t say anything bad about people unless you can back it up,” he says. “If you take a video of somebody stumbling out of a bar, you need to be careful calling him a drunk. He could have just tripped on the pavement.”

The best solution to avoiding trouble down the road after complaining is not saying anything that you would regret later if it ended up shared worldwide.

That is something Edelman now wishes he had considered. In retrospect, he says he did go too far. “I do think my tone and style were out of line, so I was happy to apologize for that,” he wrote to Reuters.

Follow us @ReutersMoney or here Editing by Beth Pinsker, Lauren Young and David Gregorio

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