There’s been a lot of hype around service industries becoming more widely available on the internet. Some companies make it possible for individuals to book a room in a stranger’s home or to find casual labourers for household tasks. I’m interested in the human rights issues these companies skirt around, particularly with regard to consumer and employee protection. Internet enthusiasts frequently assert that these companies and their concepts are “innovative and ingenius.” After a bit of research, I found something quite different: with some there’s an unsettling degree of disingenuity, particularly in the marketing and administration of their services.
To start my analysis, I’m posting an amusing video from Natalie Tran, the young YouTube sensation from Australia. The first 90 seconds of her video tell the story:
Now apart from the humorous content, there is a real message here: a lot of people on the internet lie. For this series, I’ll be focusing on subtler forms of online deception.
What prompted me was another video, one of a TED speaker who spoke at their 2012 conference in Edinburgh, Rachel Botsman. I’d always assumed TED speakers were knowledgeable, and so when I started querying — about how she ended up speaking at their global conference — I found a tide of anti-TED sentiment, most of which augured with my feelings about her talk. It’s curious, but she doesn’t actually deliver much in the way of data; instead we are treated to an 18 minute infomerical about the glories of two new platforms, Airbnb and Taskrabbit.
Critics like Tom Slee have been quick to point out that these online businesses do tidy end-runs around basic human rights (see link below). In Canada, there are laws that protect landlords and tenants from unsafe sublets and employees and casual labourers from undue harm. If my recent conversations on Twitter are any indication, however, internet utopians, as Evgeny Morozov calls them, don’t want to hear about pesky little problems like legal dodges. They’re too busy spreading the hoopla and eyeing the green.
So who is Bostman? Apparently she’s an expert on “collaborative consumption,” a fancy way of saying she’s an expert on how people buy, sell and swap online. Here is her TED video. The first two or three minutes is enough to the gist of her talk.
Airbnb is an online service that matches travelers with accommodations in (mostly) private homes; TaskRabbit is an online service that matches customers looking to outsource tasks — like assembling IKEA furniture — with “task-rabbits,” people who specialize in doing them. Botsman’s primary thesis is that the currency in this new marketplace is trust. Her ideas and her delivery are problematic for several reasons. First, her uplifting words deflect attention from potential abuses; second, her assessment of how trust works over the internet is far too optimistic; third, her “innovative” ideas about swapping and bartering are hardly new.
That’s the problem with some claims made by net utopians. Rather than seeing the internet as an extension of ideas that already exist, they see it as an innovator and creator of new marketplaces. My use of personification in that last sentence is deliberate. Apparently there is life in this creature called the internet and some people are using very persuasive language to make us believe it.
And this is where the Web 2.0 officially intersects with The New Age.
If you follow my blog, you will know that in 2008, my mother had a stroke. There were some problems at her acute-care hospital, problems that had more to do with the attitude of medical staff and less to do with the region’s budget crisis. I mention the budget because staff I dealt with consistently pointed to it to explain the poor care my mother was receiving. I didn’t believe that crisis accounted for all our difficulties and so I looked to the internet, to sites like RateMyMD.com, to see if my observations, particularly of some physicians, were consistent with the observations of others. What I found intrigued me.
With one physician I saw a curious pattern, a pattern I’ll call 4, 5 or 6 to 1. That is, for every negative review of this man, all of which focused on his poor attitude or tendency to favouritism, I found that 4, 5 or 6 positive reviews invariably followed. Some of his positive reviewers mentioned a specific observation made in a negative review and countered it, making it sound as though the negative reviewer had unreasonable expectations or a limited understanding of medicine. Of course I found this interesting because I agreed with the negative reviewers; I witnessed the same problems they did. So in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the positive reviewers struck back and they did so by attacking the negative reviewers — suffering patients, in other words — who had dared to speak their truths.
Ostensibly, RateMyMD is there to serve the public by posting honest ratings. However, it soon became clear the positive reviewers were healthcare workers supporting this physician. How did I know? They slipped up occasionally and described medical procedures laypeople wouldn’t normally witness or used jargon laypeople wouldn’t normally use. As well, some reviews seemed very personal and made this man sound like a hero. This last fact really troubled me. Surely, I thought, users of our healthcare system deserve to know the truth about some of its most worrisome practitioners?
I don’t wish to state the obvious: We all know it’s easy to lie on the internet. And people familiar with internet businesses know that a site like RateMyMD is not there to serve the public: it’s there to make advertising revenue for the site’s owner. So how can we know what’s true? What is imperative to our successful navigation of the internet is knowledge and vigilance, things that slip away from us at times. That area of slippage — that gap between what we accept as the truth or reject as a lie — is where those sneaky half-truths get in.
And we all know how this works.
There are times when we are too tired, too distracted or just too uninformed to be discerning. An idea from the internet appears on our mental horizon and it looks good, sounds likely and we make the decision — at some level — to believe it. It could be we make the decision out of laziness; it could be we make it to stave off feelings of inadequacy or overload; it could be we make it because it’s an idea that’s appealing. Think of how strongly we want to believe in the goodness of our heroes and in the badness of our villains. An example? Lance Armstrong raked in tons of money even when evidence of his doping was obvious and obviously there all along.
I’ll be looking at the phenomenon of disappearing bad reviews (Airbnb) and the use euphemistic language (Taskrabbit) in Parts 2, 3 and 4.
Part 2 : http://ireneogrizek.ca/?p=4498
Part 3: http://ireneogrizek.ca/?p=4638
Part 4: http://ireneogrizek.ca/?p=4961
Tom Slee’s excellent analysis of peer-to-peer businesses: http://tinyurl.com/cwr6cdy