My husband and I frequently go to lunch or dinner at
Dashi, a good family-owned Japanese restaurant across the street from Sun’s
Menlo Park campus. Dashi has recently been the target of online community abuse,
with an attacker using several names on the popular
Yelp review system. Fortunately, the loyal and enthusiastic Dashi patrons have
contributed positive reviews. Also, it looks like Yelp has recently taken down some
of the racist negative postings.
In one sense, the community system worked for Dashi – valid positive reviews
swamped hateful attacks. However, it was a painful process for Dashi’s owners
and things could just as easily have gone wrong for them.
Listening to John, Dashi’s owner, talk about his frustration with this difficult
problem made me realize how vulnerable to abuse community-based rating systems
can be. In his own words, John joined with Cassio of Shakespeare’s Othello
Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost
my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of
myself, and what remains is bestial.
Act II, scene iii
Dashi’s situation reminded me of why eBay recently changed their rating system.
An Old House Journal magazine article by Tony and Celine Seideman in the
November-December 2008 issue said of eBay’s rating system:
“There are some not-so-nice people on eBay, as there are everywhere. But one
of the site’s more brilliant features is its rating system for people who buy
and sell. We’ve found anything below a 97-percent favorable rating is getting
into risky territory. Though that may sound like perfectionism, the reality is
that once bad people start getting negative ratings, they simply create new
identities. So a small number of negative responses can send a big, clear
This is good advice. I rarely even consider buying something from an eBay seller
with less than a 98% positive rating. How did eBay’s rating system get so skewed
that 96% is too bad to consider?
EBay used to have a system where both buyers and sellers left each other
positive and negative feedback. The system worked well enough but a small number of
sellers would routinely bully buyers into giving them better feedback than they
deserved by threatening to leave negative buyer feedback. (I had this happen to me
when I dared to complain about a terrible packing job.) There are badly behaved
buyers too – particularly people who do not pay after winning an auction.
EBay’s new feedback system only allows sellers to leave positive feedback. Here
is what eBay’s FAQ says:
Why are sellers only allowed to leave buyers positive Feedback?
Buyers can only receive positive Feedback because of their role as a customer. In addition, when buyers received negative Feedback, they reduced their activity in
the marketplace, which in-turn harmed sellers. If and when buyers abuse Feedback,
sellers can notify eBay via the Seller reporting hub and immediate action will be
taken against those buyers.
(from the eBay Feedback FAQ, updated July 10, 2008)
Community rating systems have great value. They provide a common vocabulary
and provide a context for trust in the electronic world. But online communities
are becoming as complex as normal human societies as more people join in.
I am glad to see eBay’s rating system evolve to protect buyers as well as
sellers. There is another passage in Othello about reputation. In
reading it, remember that Iago who says the lines is the greatest scoundrel
in Shakespeare’s plays and is using these fine words to lure Othello. In
Shakespeare, as in eBay, things are not always what they seem.
Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls:
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands:
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.
Act III, scene iii