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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
"Best of the Web: scuba tips no other
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August 1999 Vol. 14, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Live by the Internet Die by the Internet

from the August, 1999 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Both parties agree that the incident should never have happened. When Jeff Bennewitz and his party came up from his May 2, 1999, night dive with Cozumel’s Aldora Divers, the Aldora II should have been there waiting, and his party should not have had to swim to shore. The Aldora II’s absence was a serious safety breach, and Bennewitz had every reason to be furious. He was. He went back to his hotel room fuming, and when he got home, he logged onto an online diving forum, posted an account of the incident, and watched the responses mount.

It wasn’t the first time the web had roasted Aldora: in November, 1998, a diver passing through a swimthrough found that he was unable to draw air because rust from one of Aldora’s steel tanks had totally clogged his regulator (see Undercurrent’s 4/99 issue). The divemaster’s quick response averted tragedy and Dillehay announced new tank handling procedures, but the online postings sparked a resounding response from the dive community. It wasn't hard to see why negative posters refer to their handiwork as flaming: Dillehay said that “January and February were such financial disasters that I really contemplated closing things down.” Although Dillehay says the captain failed to follow written orders when he left Bennewitz’s party for what may have been as long as two hours (the captain blames his absence on a dead starboard motor and repairs), Dillehay fears customers who read Bennewitz’s online posting will once again vote with their feet.

The online diving forums are a bully pulpit with an amazing reach: services like America Online and Compuserve boast millions of members; others, like Rodale's Diver to Diver, are widely used in the dive community. The forums have turned word-ofmouth recommendations into an immense market force, one that can build businesses—or tear them down. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before. In November, 1995, we published an account of the online troubles of Bruce Bowker, owner of Bonaire’s Carib Inn. A diver using the screen name Jenny TRR had posted accusations on America Online’s dive bulletin board accusing one of Carib Inn’s divemasters of using drugs while they were diving. Bowker investishop gated the incident, determined it was untrue, and posted a demand that Jenny TRR retract the accusation. When there was no response, Bowker sued AOL to force it to divulge the identity of the poster— and won. The poster turned out to be a disgruntled employee who’d not only posted Jenny TRR’s original accusation but also impersonated an FBI agent, a Florida state trooper, and others “to create the impression that these accusations were backed up by many persons of authority.”

Should a business go
under because one angry
customer is very vocal?

Like the newspaper “extras” of yesteryear, it’s sensationalism that sells. In mid-June a poster identified only as “JoeDiver” posted a bold-typeface headline announcing “Dive With Martin killed another diver last year.” The “story” that followed stated “an instructor working for DWM took a girl to break the deep record for women. She never made it back. DWM denied they knew what the instructor was doing.” Some posted responses debated the ethics of Dive With Martin’s “involvement,” although a few more savvy respondents asked “What’s your agenda?” and “Why does your title say DWM killed the diver when your post says it was a renegade DWM?” One diver concluded that “somebody else on the island is so pissed about his success that they post crap like this....”

Although dive operators like Dive With Martin and Aldora serve a lot of serious divers and make most of their customers happy, working with boats and in diving means that equipment fails, operators screw up, accidents happen, and customers get mad. Most reasonable folks assess blame on the basis of whether the operator was negligent (or grossly negligent), not how irate the customer is. But when volatile emotions and the internet’s high-tech bully pulpit combine to play both judge and jury, I’m not sure the verdict rendered is always fair and impartial.

The letters posted on the web aren’t much different from the letters that cross my desk. I have to put each one in perspective. If I get 100 glowing reviews and one person who’s had a bad experience, I can’t print only the bad experience and imply that it’s typical. There’s fallout from everything I publish. I have a duty to research each incident thoroughly, look at everyone’s side, weigh the facts, and print a balanced account of what happened. A critical review can drive an operation out of business—hardly something I’d want to do cavalierly.

Should a business go under because one angry customer is very vocal? Dive consumers will decide, but if it does, it’s because divers are relying on what they read on the web to be accurate, objective, and balanced. Can online dive forums fill this bill? Given human nature, it’s easy to skew the forums’ balance: a score of positive reviews can quickly become buried in the avalanche of criticism stemming from a lone incident. As in the cases of Bowker and Dive With Martin, objectivity is also in question, and it’s impossible to know whether a complaint comes from an objective source or someone with a hidden agenda. The forums are an easy venue to exploit, and they’re as open to a competitor’s cheap shot as they are to genuinely aggrieved customers. Even in the case of aggrieved customers, readers still only hear one side of the story. All told, the combination of one-sided narratives, the overwhelming number of negative postings, and the possibility that the source of the original complaint may be someone with an ax to grind adds up to a generous margin of error—yet often consumer response to flaming is dramatic, with customers fleeing in droves. Dillehay sums up the likely result quite well when he says, “Yes, we live by the internet, and we may die by the internet, but those who react to inflammatory accusations or rumors may only be hurting themselves and the quality of dive experience for all.”

— John Q. Trigger

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