While this meme of the "Internet people" was popularized by Anonymous with regard to their hacking and their protests in the RL, it might as well be the slogan of Internet services that put you together with strangers to use your property, and tell you everything will be fine.
Silicon Valley right now is embroiled in a scandal that could be as far-reaching at Murdoch's tabloid-empire hacking scandal.
A woman who used the service AirBnB -- an Internet company valued at one time at $1 billion -- which links you up with people who want to rent your room through an online social media service, had her home ransacked, all her valuables robbed and had her identity stolen by users of the AirBnB service.
Reportedly, when she tried to complain she was ignored and then told to shut up. The company apparently tried to suppress her complaint, so she blogged it and it went viral as complaints against high-profile high-funded Silicon Valley start-ups often do (look at the beating that Groupon is taking everywhere, starting at TechCrunch). Then she blogged some more after the tech press took it up, correcting some of their spin. Appalling, she wrote of their co-founder's real concerns -- his next round:
On this same day, I received a personal call from one of the co-founders of Airbnb. We had a lengthy conversation, in which he indicated having knowledge of the (previously mentioned) person who had been apprehended by the police, but that he could not discuss the details or these previous cases with me, as the investigation was ongoing. He then addressed his concerns about my blog post, and the potentially negative impact it could have on his company’s growth and current round of funding. During this call and in messages thereafter, he requested that I shut down the blog altogether or limit its access, and a few weeks later, suggested that I update the blog with a “twist" of good news so as to “complete[s] the story.
In his statement, the CEO Brian Chesky seemed to compound the injury with insult by implying, again, that his company had no responsibility, but only users in a "trust system" could do this with "transparency" (i.e. presumably by ratings -- although as the hapless renter found out, she didn't have any of the personal details of her tenants until after she had left town -- it was delivered at the last minute.)
We’ve created a marketplace built on trust, transparency and authenticity within our community, and we hold the safety of our community members as our highest priority. We will continue to work with our users to stamp out those who would put that community at risk in any way. The vast majority of our community members genuinely respect and protect each other, but we urge users to be careful and discerning with each other and to hold others accountable through reviews, flagging and our customer service channel. Our hearts go out to our host and we will continue to work with her and with the authorities to make this right.
See, the Internet holds your property and the transaction -- the company takes no responsibility for it whatsoever, and urges you basically to, um, file an abuse report and then click "unlike" on somebody's profile.
The first company founder I asked David Karp from Tumblr seemed puzzled. Governance? He handed it off to his best friend to do. Er, *one* friend. One guy? On a service with millions of users? He seemed uninterested. He just seemed like a kid.
The second company, Kevin Systrom from Instagram immediately said, "The community manager is the first person I hired". It's a terribly vital role, it's the most important in the business. He explained that you have a problem when lots of your customers don't like the photos of some of your other customers, and you have to find a way to address that challenge. None of this "safe harbour, don't go on the Internet if you don't like looking at porn," sort of stuff from this guy, but a plan for a response and a system.
The Lindens, who have managed an extremely volatile and talkative and neuralgic customer base for 7 years now, know how to do customer relations and "community management". They have sometimes learned from mistakes but not always.
I have cautioned about the downside of "the Internet of things" because of its inherent collectivization philosophy -- it enables coded, interactive objects to become not really your property, but the property of the coders and the Internet services. We already see that with our digital content and our digital lives. Now it is extending to things in the real world, and perhaps some day our bodies as well.
I have a visceral dislike to the basic business notion of both AirBnB, which is wildly popular and was profitable and beloved by investors in Silicon Valley until now, and Getaround, the similar sort of start-up featured at TechCrunch Disrupt.
Why? Because it collectivizes your property. That it does this with your consent isn't relevant because it doesn't really serve as a good steward. The developers basically look out at the vast wasteland of people's unused cars and unused apartments and views them as "theirs" to "monetarize". To be sure, the people with this surplus get paid, and it seems like a good enough incentive to give up their privacy and to provide access to their property to strangers.
But while readers will whine that I am raising the specter of communism again, the reality is, you do become pressed into service in a commune when you sign up with these services. It's a commune that pays better than a Soviet commune -- perhaps that's the boon the Internet brings us, as Kevin Kelly has explained, communism that actually works better with its distributive model.
But whenever property is treated as not really something to be respected because it belongs to an owner, but is borrowed or used or exploited by some other meta-system without the rule of law (like Soviet communism), it leads to devaluation of property and contempt. Every worker then steals from his factory or his collective farm and tries to get whatever he can out of the impoverished system; so plundered, these entities then can't sustain themselves.
So not surprisingly, thieves who don't value your property and just want to expropriate it creep into this system readily. In fact, even without the communist overarching explanations I've provided here, for anyone just looking at this system as a capitalist service, it has a big vulnerability in it, which is people who are criminals can exploit it or accidents can happen.
And sure enough they finally did in AirBnB, as a woman had her apartment ransacked, her stuff stolen, and her identity taken.
Now what happened next was also a function of Silicon Valley culture. While initially handling her complaint after a 14-hour delay, after she published her blog, she was not dealt with, her complaint went unheard, the management didn't talk to her, and they tried to suppress her negative blog. To be sure, they then came round and showered her with offers to pay for new stuff, but a lot of damage was done by then.
AirBnB says they doubled their customer service only after this incident -- not earlier when their billion might have gone to better use -- in their greed. Customer service was put last -- until their very business was at stake.
The police made an arrest (although it's not certain that it's the ransacking culprit), but down deep, AirBnB believed that it really wasn't their responsibility to get involved with the *user* of their online service; their only responsibility was to cooperate with *the police* in prosecuting an *exploiter* of their service. SO typical of all these platforms -- file an abuse report on a griefer, have the griefer perhaps ignored or maybe dealt with, but never hear how he was handled or whether it was permanent, and never be compensated or have a means of seeking compensation -- like real life. That is the heart of the online experience -- no torts and companies eager to claim safe harbours and exemption of responsibility. Blame the users for not sufficiently watching *each other* on myriad social media gadgets -- don't blame the lack of company customer service.
The blogger explained that for her $20 sign-up fee, she thought she'd get some basic vetting -- more than she'd get from a $0 cost Craigslist add. But she didn't -- because the company expects you to check out your own customers -- even as it takes a fee for connecting you to them. This can't work.
Michael Arrington, an aggressive investigative journalist when it comes to certain topics, went after this like a bulldog. And interestingly, despite TechCrunch's cheerleading for AirBnB since its inception, and despite his love of Y Combinator and Paul Graham, the tech tycoon who bankrolls this, he criticized these people over this story and Graham's response -- for reasons not entirely clear to me, and I suspect are not only about altruism, he was able to overcome the Silicon Valley tribal bonds here. And he was, of course, then aggressively attacked right back by his own kind.
Robert Scoble put on Google+ a bunch of suggestions for companies that find themselves in this sort of major PR disaster. Basically, the boil down to a stance that inherently is rejected by Silicon Valley, which is "the customer is always right." And he added that only one person should handle the press, preferably the CEO, and anyone else who steps out of line and starts talking to the press should be fired (!). Well, that was the formula they used over the petulant and unstable Ina Centaur, who blamed Linden Lab for the failure of her Shakespearean Global Theater when the bills came due and she didn't have tier -- and Rod Humble, the CEO, took it at face value and got the problem fixed, changing the way her billing was falling due to monthly instead of yearly as the educational discount sims (discontinued) used to do. She preferred to posture and caper and blame it on everything but her own poor planning instead of just sticking with customer service to get it fixed, as it was a fairly clear-cut case. The Lindens simply dealt with it at the highest level to avoid the further bad PR of seeming to be callous to the arts, which in fact they heavily promote and even subsidize. They actually took an approach of "the customer is always right" -- an ancient adage in America and one that always serves in good stead.
But Silicon Valley doesn't believe that adage, in fact, they belligerently believe in the opposite -- and usually blames every tech failing on PICNIC -- "problem in chair, not in computer." It's always our fault -- computers too slow, too stupid to understand instructions, unable to read the manual, etc. etc.
Indeed, Scoble exemplifies this nastiness -- astoundingly -- as he continues to call the woman "bat-shit crazy" for pushing her case (!) and for letting a stranger she didn't know rent her house with jewelry in a safe (!). Yeah, Robert is too rich to need to use these services as a renter or tenant, so he has a basic elitist disdain for the grunge, but he's happy to applaud it as a rent-seeking service enriching his fellow Silicon Valley geeks.