March 23, 2009

Social Web Sites Inadvertently Become Targets Of User Criticism

As social Web sites aim to connect users and allow them to voice their opinions, some are finding that their members are using their sites as a platform to launch criticism against particular aspects of the Web sites themselves.

For example, the Web site Yelp.com provides users with the opportunity to contribute their own personalized review of a business place as well as open access to more than 5 million reviews posted by others.

However, in an ironic twist, it appears that some Yelp members are using the very Web site that allows them to voice opinions to criticize the site itself.

Businesses often complain that they don't understand exactly how the Web site operates. They claim that some users' reviews have a way of disappearing without explanation.

Leslie Tagorda, owner of a San Francisco-based Web design company, Flair-Designs, told the AP that she has seen reviews of her business vanish over the past two years.

When Tagorda first noticed reviews were dropping from her Web site, she contacted customers to ask if they had deleted them. They told her they had not.

Following a message sent to Yelp, which directed her to the business owners section of the site, Tagorda decided to write a poor review of Yelp itself.

Her review earned a response from Yelp's chief executive and co-founder, Jeremy Stoppelman, who told her that Yelp uses an automated program to filter out reviews that may be dishonest.

In response to the personalized letter, Tagorda added another star to her initial two-out-of-five star review of Yelp.

She also updated her review to say she's "becoming a little happier with Yelp as a business owner."

However, she still believes "they should be clearer about how reviews are displayed on people's profiles and what happens with bad reviews."

Stoppleman told the AP more users need to be made aware of the automated filtering system in order to avoid being surprised when it occurs.

"We need to figure out how we make this bonk-you-over-the-head obvious so that everybody understands, 'Look, this is going to happen,'" he said.

Yelp is among a handful of social Web sites that are trying to overcome problems related to overall transparency.

"Recent news reports have cited other disagreements over Yelp, including allegations from businesses that Yelp offered to obscure negative reviews or move up positive ones in exchange for advertising dollars," the AP reported.

Additionally, Facebook members were outraged at a quietly made policy change that allowed the social network to gain more access to users' photos, messages and other personal information.

Facebook founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg changed the policy to allow users to have a "meaningful" role in the formation of its policies.

Both Facebook and rival networking site MySpace already allow advertisers to target users by characteristics like gender, location or interests.

"Right now, it's much more of a free for all," Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, told the AP in reference to social sites, "because the rules aren't clear."


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