UNCIVIL DISOBEDIENCE 101: A RATHER LENGTHY "EPINIONS BLOWS DOG" POST-MORTEM EXAMINATION


Nov 1, 2001 (Updated Sep 20, 2005)


The Bottom Line It worked.

Rosa Parks, I’m not.

Every time I read something on message boards comparing the Epinions Blows Dog action to the greatness of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi, or any other revolutionary figure that caused a real and lasting social change, I cringe. There’s a matter of scope here. Those protest movements involved pure-hearted individuals striving to eliminate injustice for the purpose of making the world a better place. EBD involved a bunch of internet-addicted geeks striving to protect their interests.

The actions of the participants of EBD was, I feel, justified by worthy motives and achieved its desired objectives, but it was neither a peaceful, non-violent protest, nor did it achieve anything of appreciable significance to be viewed as full-scale, nipple-twistin’ civil disobedience. But, doggone it, it worked. I liken it more to the Flintstones episode where the members of the Lodge of the Water Buffalo discovered that the Grand Poobah had stolen all their membership dues so they knocked him to the ground and kicked him in the nuts until he returned the pilfered loot. Did you ever see that one? That Barney Rubble, what a character!

Epinions member bradybunch noted that “when war is declared, sometimes it is best to ally yourself with someone who you wouldn't ordinarily side with because there is safety in numbers.” While I don’t necessarily agree with the “safety in numbers” aspect (I have no problem with standing alone if I feel it’s right), he was astute in observing that alliances were made. This was a situation where all sorts of different people, be they K&F Advisors, off-topic class clowns, or the single most read man in Epinions history, had a common enemy and a common cause and joined together to take an action to force change.

In the wake of Epinions.com’s ill-advised and almost certainly illegal seizure of our intellectual property, the community was outraged. That prompted protest actions from even the most staunchest site defenders and strictest adherents to Epinions ratings guidelines, posting etiquette, and general conventions of good taste. The widespread participation from all different community segments alone demonstrated how enraged the community was. The implicit support of those who rated the pieces favorably magnifies the outrage. However, while the disdain and revulsion at Epinions’ seizure of our content was nearly unanimous, support for EBD was not. The common enemy has been defeated, the common cause has been achieved, and now it’s time for a post-mortem, a look forward, and a return to business as usual, e.g. in-fighting, community dissent, and flogging old jokes until it hurts. Pass the fezzy potato salad, Mr. Jingles!

There were a lot of accusations and misperceptions volleyed around by the most vocal and visible attackers of the EBD movement. While some believe the aforementioned attackers are merely butt-kissing toadies jockeying for Top Reviewer/Editor positions and the associated hats, buttons, or whatever it as that is so coveted by those who groove on such things, I do not believe that. I believe many of them were telling it like they saw it and being true to their convictions and values system. But fortune does smile on them as Nirav blessed each and every one of them with a promise of future considerations in a recent correspondence, as well as showing great magnanimousity by sparing the evil, horrid violators of Epinions rating and posting guidelines from “punishment.” The contents of that letter will be shown at the end of this review.

I have taken a lot of heat lately over the limited, minor role I played in this mini-revolt and would like to take this opportunity to share my view on the top five list of most common EBD-related accusations and complaints.

#1 – THE EDITORIALS WERE OBSCENE.

There is some merit to this dispute. Many of the pieces, including my own, were peppered with coarse language, and many of them became very personal. Epinions member 4-1-1 suggested that “the same result could have been achieved if a different title was chosen (e.g., "We're Not Going to Take It Anymore").” Well, you know what? That would not have worked. By necessity, these pieces had to be constructed in such a way that they were a) prominently positioned in high traffic, high profile categories, b) capable of grabbing the attention and interest of the community, and c) so patently offensive that Epinions management would be embarrassed to allow them to remain in plain sight for public perusal. Some mild criticisms floating around in the database are not that bothersome, there are plenty already out there; but a slew of coarse, acerbic, harsh criticisms proudly displayed in some of the most visible positions on the site, and written and favorably rated by some of the site’s most popular and respected individuals forced Epinions to take action. Granted, that action could have been negative. They could have deleted the reviews, thus losing their position as a “platform” and becoming a “publisher” (which would also make them legally liable for the site’s content.) They could have deleted the accounts of the members who wrote the reviews, thus loading the search engines with a buttload of blind links and risking further revolts and mass-exodus from the remaining members. Or they could have returned what they had stolen. They chose the latter option. It was a wise choice.

So, yes, although many of the reviews were intelligent, but sharp, criticisms of Epinions theft and deception, many of them were also coarse and offensive demands for action. A handful of them could even be considered obscene. However, here is another definition of obscene, as provided by the good folks at Merriam-Webster: “repulsive by reason of crass disregard of moral or ethical principles.” One thing that I personally consider immoral and unethical is theft. As far as I’m concerned, the most obscene action in the entire scenario was Epinions.com’s brazen decision to steal our intellectual property.

It was a matter of this (to paraphrase davidk93): Fine. If you want to steal our best, we’ll gladly give you our worst.

#2 – THE ENDS DON’T JUSTIFY THE MEANS

Once again, a strong argument could be made for this supposition. But, in effect, what we were doing was forcing Epinions to either rectify their illegal and morally reprehensible actions or make some tough decisions that would have a multitude of negative ramifications for them. We were doing this by one of the few means available to us. Nevertheless, any “damage” was temporary and in direct response to a much worse offense.

A prime proponent of the “ends do not justify the means” argument is Epinions member gracef who characterizes herself as someone who “diligently play(s) by the rules even when the rules suck.” She likens the EBD actions to a “scorched earth” maneuver, something that would do permanent damage to Epinions.com’s reputation and viability, perhaps even the thing that “puts it under once and for all” although she simultaneously suggests that the EBD was good for Epinions due to the traffic it generated. She further classifies the actions as “reprehensible”, infers that the writers involved are making fools of themselves, suggests that I sound like a “plaintive child”, and believes that the EBD is proof-positive that “the writers CAN'T be trusted to be mature.” I know Grace to be an intelligent woman, but sometimes that intelligence has a strange way of manifesting itself. Sometimes it doesn’t manifest itself at all.

Grace’s (and others) primary complaint about the EBD was the method. She was in agreement that Epinions actions were wrong, but, for many of the reasons she expressed above, believed this particular protest would be ineffective and damaging to the site. She did share her own superior plan for combating Epinions unscrupulous actions, though. Her two-pronged mode of attack to “put the screws on them” was to refuse to personally write any new material until the Edit/Delete function was restored, and to copy all of her reviews to her personal website because “the Epinions content will be worth less because (her reviews) can be found elsewhere.” She also displayed a protest banner on her profile page, so obviously she was firmly committed to opposing Epinions behavior. When Epinions wisely opted to return control of all the site’s reviews to the individuals who created the content, I was delighted. I wondered if Grace’s threats were what made them change their minds. Upon further reflection, I decided it probably wasn’t.

There can be no definitive conclusion on whether the ends justified the means; that is a judgment call. I see it as a situation where a crime was committed and a large group of individuals publicized that crime on the Epinions.com website using an unorthodox approach. Others see it differently.

#3 – SOME OF THE PEOPLE WHO WROTE THESE OFF-TOPIC OPINIONS AND RATED THEM HIGHLY ARE HYPOCRITES.

This is among one of the most disturbing and obtuse accusations I have seen. It appears that Epinions member SweetCeCe, an incredibly prolific and vocal individual who has written an incredible 999 reviews (I don’t even know if I OWN that many things!) on such diverse topics as sunblock, cat food, water filtration bottles, and how to orally pleasure a man, agonizes over the rating practices of others so intensely that it makes her physically ill! She asks, “…why are THESE off-topic epinions any different than anything else? They are NOT any different and it makes me sick to think that people who I have long respected for their honest and open ratings policies to rate blatantly off-topic epinions with these ratings.”.

It should be very clear to anyone with minimal reasoning skills and even the most tenuous grasp on the dynamics of the situation that these epinions WERE different, and the extremely high ratio of individuals who assigned them VHs and MHs were rating with their conscience, just as much as the few who assigned the EBD reviews unfavorable marks were rating with their conscience. Prominent placement of the EBD reviews was integral to the success of the action. Everyone knew this. By rating these reviews highly, these individuals were not being hypocritical, they were expressing that they believed it was more important to do their part to rectify an injustice than it was to support the policy (e.g. Ratings Guidelines) of the very entity that enacted the injustice. The concept that these individuals were displaying some sort of weakness of conviction by rating these pieces favorably is absurd. They were, in fact, exhibiting strength in their convictions.

#4 – YOU ARE NOT JUSTIFIED IN YOUR ACTS OF DISSENT AGAINST EPINIONS, IT WAS JUST A BUSINESS DECISION.

I’m sorry, but this is also ludicrous. SweetCeCe plodded up to the plate to take a swing at this argument, as well, stating that “Epinions did it to protect themselves that's all -- they are a business, it was a business decision!” Since when is theft a legitimate business decision? When the Mafia assassinates government witnesses, is that a “business decision” that should be defended, also? When a drug dealer brings along children to carry his stash for him, is he to be applauded for his shrewd business sense? Epinions member mshawpyle, a retired attorney and a man who’s smarter than you and me, explains that “the disabling of my and your and every Jay-and-Jane's right to edit or delete, to exercise control and ownership of our property, represents the first time Eps has ever made an implicit claim to owning what is mine and thine (civil, if not criminal, conversion).” If you believe what Mr. Pyle said (you should) and you still defend Epinions actions in this matter, that is tantamount to saying that it is acceptable for a business to break the law and steal from you as long as it is being done to protect their own self-interests. I find it puzzling that some people put a greater emphasis on Epinions Rating Guidelines than they do on the law. Some might call it skewed priorities, but I just call it an exhibition of abject stupidity.

#5 – THE EBD ACTION HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THE RESTORATON OF THE “EDIT/DELETE” FUNCTION.

I had no intention of addressing this issue, but in light of Mr. Tolia’s condescending “we made a mistake, but you made a worse mistake, and you should grovel at my feet in appreciation for not punishing you” spiel in chat and the overt attempts he is making in his “secret” letter to further split the community into factions by implying that the EBD opposition will be rewarded for their “loyalty”, I somehow feel compelled to conjecture upon this point a bit.

Mr. Tolia fiercely proclaims that the EBD protest had no impact on his decision to return our stolen intellectual property and, in fact, was counter-productive to achieving that end. For whatever reason, I cannot seem to muster enough faith in the man’s words to believe him.

His statement:
“It would be a mistake to conclude that we reversed our decision based on any of the inappropriate behavior. If anything, those actions encouraged us to be steadfast in our decisions. However, we strive to be a company that is rational, not emotional; an organization that listens to constructive feedback.”

Mr. Tolia had no choice but to make that statement exactly as he did. A CEO can not allow the people involved with his business to believe that they have the capacity to influence policy change through negative actions. If they realize they possess that power, what is to stop them from wielding it again in the future? Stating anything other than that the EBD was detrimental to its own cause would be tantamount to saying, “You have defeated us. You have effectively exploited a weakness and used the tactics that forced our hand. The next time we pull a bone-headed move you can force our hand again.” That would just be bad business. It is good business to make the people believe that they can influence policy through what he deems “constructive means.” It would be even better business if that were true.

(NOTE: I do not advocate EBD-style tactics to influence Epinions policy. This was not about trying to tell them how to run their business. They can run their business in whatever haphazard way they want. This was about the theft of intellectual property.)

So did the Epinions Blows Dogs protest play any part in the return of our stolen intellectual property? Clearly, I was not there to hear the decision-making process. I was not invited. I suspect I shall not be invited in the future, either. But I can conjecture.

Following is a series of questions. I want you to read these questions and answer them in your head. Only after you ponder the questions should you hypothesize regarding what prompted the restoration of the “edit/delete” function.

 In the past have you ever seen Epinions demonstrate a genuine interest in the concerns of the community? When I say DEMONSTRATE, I mean showing through action, not merely saying, “Hi, we are Epinions. We have a genuine interest in the concerns of the community.”

 Have you ever in the past seen Epinions change policy as a result of community feedback? When I say “change policy”, I do not mean merely implementing policy that is of benefit to them (but not the members) and then saying it was done for you (e.g. in response to community concerns about click circles we will not be paying e-royalties any more.)

 Do you believe in your heart that Epinions has a true concern for its members, or is merely interested in keeping them pacified enough to ensure their continued involvement and productivity?

 If Epinions harbored a true concern and respect for its members, would they have stolen our intellectual property?

 If you don’t believe Epinions has demonstrated concern and respect for its members in the past, do you think that they suddenly developed these qualities over the weekend the EBD protest was occurring?

 Have you ever seen Epinions proactively respond to a problem?

 Have you recently sent an e-mail to Epinions?

 Do you believe that human eyes scanned that e-mail?

 Did Epinions respond to the e-mail?

 Was the response a form letter?

 Did the form letter even vaguely pertain to the issue your correspondence was addressing?

 Have you ever read a piece on Epinions promoting pedophilia?

 Have you ever read a piece on Epinions promoting spousal abuse?

 Have you ever read a piece on Epinions promoting racism?

 Have you ever read a piece on Epinions promoting violence against homosexuals?

 Is there currently an Epinions member called pinkbits?

 If there is an Epinions member called pinkbits, has he written reviews entitled “My huge cock” and “I WILL KILL YOUR CHILDREN”?

 Do you believe Epinions is a good place to post reviews entitled “My huge cock” and “I WILL KILL YOUR CHILDREN”?

 Have you seen other members that spew hateful garbage such as that?

 If you have seen other members like that, did you report them to Abuse?

 Did you get a form letter back instructing you how to use your block list?

 Do you feel that a form letter instructing you how to use your block list is a strong and adequate response to such abuse?

 Has Epinions ever displayed great concern over the presence of pederasts and other assorted sickos in its user base?

 Has Epinions ever displayed great concern over the hideous material such individuals produce?

 Has Epinions ever displayed great concern over a writeoff entitled “Epinions Blows Dog”?

 Does Epinions believe that it is more important to protect its viewers from articles harshly criticizing Epinions than it is to protect its viewers from articles promoting pedophilia and expounding the virtues of “My huge cock”?

 If you are a long-time member, did you ever see a FAQ about the pay scale that proclaimed you could earn in excess of $30,000 per year writing at Epinions?

 Did you make in excess of $30,000 per year writing at Epinions?

 Does that statement seem excessive and ridiculous?

 Is that statement a lie?

 Do you believe Epinions has been forthright in the way they have handled the TOS?

 Have you ever read statements in Epinions FAQs that you believed were untruthful?

 Have you ever seen Nirav Tolia lie in a chat?

 Do you believe Nirav Tolia is upfront and truthful when addressing the site’s members?

 Have you ever found Nirav Tolia’s demeanor to be smarmy and duplicitous?

 Do you believe that Nirav Tolia’s chat sessions are not so much communication as they are public relations spin and damage control?

 Did you have faith that e-mail complaints, constructive community center editorials, and other positive forms of communication could convince Epinions to return our intellectual property?

 If not, why not?

 If so, do you believe in the Easter Bunny?

 Santa Claus?

 Are you a member of the Flat Earth Society?

 Are you ready to make your determination yet?

Personally, after assessing my answers to those questions, I have a sneaking hunch that the EBD may have been a successful effort.

Mr. Tolia, if you are reading this, please realize that you are not dealing with idiots. Just like Barney Rubble and the other Water Buffaloes in that classic Flintstones episode, we knocked you down, kicked you in the balls, and forced you to return property you had stolen from us. Please be notified that if you ever attempt to infringe upon our intellectual property rights again, you had better come equipped with steel-reinforced nutcups because, brother, the exact same thing will happen. You can knock me down, step on my face, slander my name all over the place. Do anything you want to do, but uh-uh, honey, lay off my intellectual property rights. Don’t you step on my intellectual property rights.

Also, you may be thinking that the “best solution” to your problems is to simply delete my account. You would rid yourself of one guy who doesn’t like being trampled. However, allow me to assure you that the REAL “best solution” is to begin dealing with us in an honest, forthright manner, and make good on your stated commitment to establish trust in this community. Please note that I said “establish trust” rather than “rebuild trust”. The trust never existed in the first place from this end. Did it from yours? As far as sweeping me under the rug is concerned, trust me when I tell you that there are many, many people on this site who are smarter, more passionate, possess superior leadership skills, and are more loved and respected than I am. They can do the exact same thing, and I’ve now showed them how. I may be Sordidicus Maximus, but there are a hundred more just like me lurking right here in your backyard.

You play nice with us, and we’ll play nice with you.

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BONUS TIDBIT! STRAIGHT FROM OUR SECRET HEADQUARTERS IN BRISBANE, NIRAV TOLIA’S LETTER TO THOSE WHO NH’D AND LEFT DISSENTING VIEWPOINTS ON THE EBD REVIEWS!

Dear [INSERT NAME OF VALUED MEMBER WHO DOES NOT THINK EPINIONS BLOWS DOG],

I am writing to personally thank you for your admirable actions on the site the last few days, specifically around the EBD protest. While we appreciate and encourage all feedback – both negative and positive -- the off topic and offensive nature of EBD is completely inappropriate and has no place on Epinions.

You may be wondering why we are not punishing those who wrote/highly rated EBD reviews. It was a difficult decision, but we decided to take the opportunity to rebuild trust with the entire community. We decided to take a chance on people -- give them the benefit of the doubt, and see what happens.

If EBD-style protests erupt in the future, there will be consequences.

After much deliberation on the issue, we felt this is a special circumstance. Also, let me assure you that we didn't bring back edit/delete because of the protest. We made that decision based on the constructive feedback received.

We will not respond to threats.

What you guys did was more than admirable, and we will never, ever forget you for it. Even before this situation, you possessed our loyalty and trust.

We know you are our top contributors. Your actions in this especially difficult time simply reinforce that realization. We know who truly loves Epinions, and will not forget.

Sincerely Yours,

Nirav


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