The People’s Court

As the old saying goes, a reputation takes a lifetime to build up but can be undone in a single moment. Never has this been more true than in the age of the internet. The owners of the Union Street Guest House, a small hotel in Hudson, New York, were reminded of this recently. The hubbub began when The New York Post drew attention to a clause that appeared on the hotel’s website until the surge of publicity led it to make some modifications. First, the website explained:

Please know that despite the fact that wedding couples love Hudson and our Inn, your friends and families may not. This is due to the fact that your guests may not understand what we offer – therefore we expect you to explain that to them. USGH & Hudson are historic. The buildings here are old (but restored). Our bathrooms and kitchens are designed to look old in an artistic “vintage” way. Our furniture is mostly hip, period furniture that you would see in many design magazines. (although comfortable and functional – obviously all beds are brand new.) If your guests are looking for a Marriott type hotel they may not like it here.

Then came the kicker:

If you have booked the Inn for a wedding or other type of event anywhere in the region and given us a deposit of any kind for guests to stay at USGH there will be a $500 fine that will be deducted from your deposit for every negative review of USGH placed on any internet site by anyone in your party and/or attending your wedding or event. If you stay here to attend a wedding anywhere in the area and leave us a negative review on any internet site you agree to a $500 fine for each negative review.

Once the Post brought the $500 fine policy to the attention of the public, reaction on the internet was swift. The hotel’s Yelp page and Facebook page (the latter of which has since been taken down, presumably by the hotel’s ownership in response to the derision that flooded it) were flooded with negative reviews. Most of these reviews were clearly from people who had never stayed at the hotel but who wanted to rake it across the coals for the $500 fine policy. Many of these Yelp reviews have since been removed, but more continue to pop up. At the time I began writing this post, the most recent Yelp review read “What a bunch of anus-hats. Never stay here.”

Once the story broke, a representative of the hotel said in an email to CNBC that “The policy regarding wedding fines was put on our site as a tongue-in-cheek response to a wedding many years ago. It was meant to be taken down long ago and certainly was never enforced.” However, a Slate article brings attention to a review left by a guest months ago, before the controversy began, that describes behavior on the part of the hotel that is suspiciously consistent with the $500 fine policy.

Union Street Guest House might end up soliciting the services of an online reputation management firm.

Union Street Guest House might end up soliciting the services of an online reputation management firm.

The brouhaha has inspired reflection on whether the hotel’s policy would be legally enforceable. The consensus seems to be that it would not be, as the same Slate article that referenced the old review points out. But I find myself far more interested in the social consequences of the episode than the slim possibility of formal legal consequences. I wonder whether the owners of the USGH really deserved all the opprobrium that was directed their way. I know someone might say “Hey, come on, it’s not like they’re going to jail or anything. It’s just some bad press and bad reviews on the internet.” But the state and the legal system aren’t the only institutions with the capacity to negatively impact our lives, as sociology has long recognized. Someone who is never hauled into a “real” court can still be tried and convicted in the court of public opinion, and the internet represents a powerful new megaphone through which the court of public opinion can announce its verdicts.

In the case of the USGH, I’m not sure if the punishment the court handed down – systematic reputation destruction – fits the crime. Let there be no doubt – I agree as much as the next person that putting the fine clause on their website – whether sincerely or as a joke – was a monumentally stupid decision. But does it really warrant the gleeful savaging that it brought on? The anonymous online commenters administering the punishment were, for the most part, not even directly impacted by the policy. USGH’s crime was not soliciting a fine from them, it was violating the commenters’ standards of what is right and proper for a company to say. The efforts of each individual commenter may not seem like much when considered in isolation, but in their totality they amount to a major blow to the USGH’s reputation, one which it will probably be impossible to ever fully live down.

And who is running the USGH, anyway? Dastardly evildoers who delight in offending the masses? Or relatively ordinary people who happened to make a major miscalculation regarding a fine policy? I suspect it’s the latter and that, while they may not be acutely attuned to matters of ideal website content, the owners of the USGH are not also all-around horrible people, and that the USGH itself is not the sort of hellhole that you would typically assume a hotel with a 1.5 rating on Yelp to be. And yet, thanks to the internet and the court of public opinion, the USGH is now forever doomed to be shackled to the spectacle of its biggest embarrassment. I would simply ask all those who took to Yelp with their one-star reviews – would you welcome the same fate, of having your most unfortunate or regrettable moment in life permanently displayed at the top of Google searches for your name? In some cases, I would readily agree that such a fate – along with a number of even harsher fates – is richly deserved; I shed no tears for the fact that the first page of search results for Pol Pot includes the words “dictator,” “killer,” and “nightmare.” But what if the great offense to which the internet ties your identity is not something as heinous as engendering the deaths of millions but is as relatively innocuous as a misjudgment about how to handle unhappy wedding guests? In that case, I’m just not sure reputation destruction is warranted.

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