I think we need to start with a couple presuppositions about social media:

1) It’s the wild west of social media.

2) This isn’t rocket science – it’s about old school customer service.

3) Knee jerk reactionary business owners will always blow things out of proportion, dodge accountability, and blind themselves to what’s really happening to their brand through the eyes of clients. You don’t need social media for that…. it’s been that way for centuries. Of course reviewers shouldn’t be marked as “problem guests” for writing a critical review – that’s poor real-world management of information, and not about the nature of the information itself.  This is a major component of the flawed logic for anonymity seekers.

Now the question we are trying to answer:

Should there be a reasonable expectation of privacy in regards to User Generated Content? More specifically, is it ok for a hotel to connect the dots between user generated hotel reviews and the actual guest transaction, folio, etc. In this article about hotels deducing who wrote Tripadvisor reviews, the author muses on the tension between a hotel wanting to know who wrote the review, and the reviewer wanting some level of anonymity.  He leaves it with advice for how users may better secure anonymity.

I am going to sort of put it out there at the beginning of this that *anyone* who *ever* writes a review and wants anonymity is a fraud and coward.  But that’s my opinion.  Let’s delve a bit deeper.

In the end, what is the point of a “review”? Is it to help the external guest network accumulate reliable information, or a place to help a proprietor with advice, or a place to bitch, etc. Defining what we think it should be, coupled with what we think it is, is vital.

I don’t think the long term maturity of socmed will favor or highlight those whom wish to complain anonymously, or flippantly. It won’t help business models flourish, it won’t really help potential guests, and it certainly doesn’t help the hotels.  As social media takes hold, verifiability and tangible accountability will be de riguer, because there needs to be reliability in regards to what exists online, or all of it will fall apart, partly because the less reliable the reviews, the less likely the site will get the network effect desired to make it relevant (however, I think anonymous internet culture is massively important in it’s own right, but doesn’t exist in the same manner as user generated content that interacts with brick and mortar business). Transparency issues have plagued most review sites, and they are constantly reconfiguring the sites to be more trustworthy, and reliable.  It’s not the nature of the groundswell to be random, or isolated; so these types of anonymous reviews will become irrelevant and less frequent, especially with technologies connecting secondary sites with main social hubs like Twitter or Facebook. Legitimacy is key to social media’s power and survival, and people will eventually recognize that it is molding the day to day operations of our physical business world, and it serves to allow business to grow and listen. Either act like the historically terrible businessman and dodge responsibility, or in all humility, sideline hubris for content laden dialogue that helps to bolster your bottom line, fix problems, understand demographic needs, etc.

So if you have a business “doing” social media “right” (quotes added in regards to obvious subjectivity), they are looking for information, and trying to extend themselves to their guests so as to understand their point of view, concerns, etc.

In that, social media reviews, whatever the individual content creator’s reasoning, are for hotels to understand their obligations to their guests. It is tantamount to filling out a comment card or talking with management (of course this is something we would like to see more often, and often guests hide behind the *supposed* veil of anonymity, in the lapsed understanding of their earnest role in meaningful exchange).

There is absolutely zero argument against a hotel seeking out all possible avenues to help their business grow, learn, recover, and exist into the future. In essence, the guest opted-in to the hotel by staying there, and to a much greater extent opted-in to interaction by generating public content.

If a guest doesn’t like a hotel responding to their review, then they should simply speak to management to begin with.  The majority of hotel reviewers are doing 2 things: helping the hotel, and helping future guests.  If they are particularly excited you can add “brand aware advocate” or “brand endorser”, but we are obviously speaking about constructive to critical reviews.  A smaller and nearly irrelevant (true – hotels over-react to bad reviews, but potential guests and review readers quickly filter seething reviews as if they were blocking an internet ad banner…. it’s unconscious and natural to pass over obviously unhinged or shill reviews.  Most people, even *YOU* gentle reader, don’t even realize they are honing in on and favoring specific reviews over those that are obviously blatant, nonconstructive anger).

In the end, why would one even write a review?  Anything generated on the internet should be considered public, and I am finally ready to start laughing heartily at the privacy conversations in regards to Facebook, and social media.  It’s ludicrous to have an expectation of privacy…. especially when you are GENERATING CONTENT that is being READ AND INDEXED.  Doesn’t that seem a bit disingenuous and incredibly naive to think you would remain anonymous while adding such specific information?

So I ask reviewers maintaining their need for anonymity – why?  Of course the reaction of a negative ownership or bad business manager is one reason, but you don’t need social media for that.  They will be awful both offline and on.  What’s more, why should anyone find any legitimacy or trust in a reviewer that is cloaked in the shadows of anonymity?  A faceless reviewer with few review, and no reference points vs. a reviewer with an avatar & history of constructive reviewing…  which would an average reader trust?  So – what’s the point of anonymity?  The idea of hotels exploiting guest information is also a red herring, because that has nothing to do with social media, but everything to do with unethical management.  Bad business does what it wants, and that may include exploiting guest data and information.  But most hoteliers don’t have time, capacity, or desire to casually amble through bits of minutia.  There is only one single reason hotels collect and use data: to enhance the guest experience.  Period.  The slippery slope is talking about “bad hotels” vs. “ethical hotels”, of course.  But as I mentioned – unethical business is unethical both online and off.

Social Media, especially user generated content, has had a fleeting but powerful impact on the nature of how businesses interact with clients.  It is redefining our relationship with our guests, and we are at an irrevocable point in how we exist in relationship to it.  It’s absurd to think this should be a one sided interaction with no response, especially when the best business owners are also proud and passionate about the product they provide.  I know small business owners that live and die by their 5 star reviews, and every single bad review is something to be taken seriously – these review sites have built up businesses through strong referral networks, and we have also seen businesses brought down by that same powerful method of communication.  Sometimes, it almost feels like a chef’s reaction to losing a Michelin Star… it’s that serious.

I apologize to the reviewers that think review sites are a void to hurl epithets and grumpy experiences of bad travel days…. you are out of touch, and you need to reconsider exactly *why* you are reviewing.

This is a dynamic conversation that is maturing and growing into having severe impact on a hotel’s livelihood. If a hotel is smart enough to be on the ball with social media, and understand the nature of this constructive communication – it is hardly their fault that a guest reviewer doesn’t understand that.

All this, however, will sort it out within 5 years and a whole new set of complex problems will exist.  Can’t wait to think about those, as well.

If you actually got to this point… take a break from working. I am sure you need it. =)

About Michael

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