This is my third post about problems at Couchsurfing, a site where I’m not even an especially active member. Why do I find this story interesting? And why should you?
First, because the way this tiny social network is breaking down may hint at problems for larger social sites in the future. And second, because it’s a case study in terrible public relations that offers useful lessons for all consumer-facing startups.
In this post I’ll focus on the second reason, because it’s more entertaining. Our story so far: CS is a social network for travellers with about five million members. For the last two years, they’ve been in a bizarre and escalating conflict with their own core user base. (More details in my last two posts.) This conflict exploded onto the rest of the internet earlier this month after the company unexpectedly deleted the accounts of several dissenting members. I didn’t know the full extent of it when I wrote my last post, but it was part of a huge and continuing wave of criticism on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, travel blogs, and even Youtube.
How did it start? Well, the company had a support forum (run by Zendesk) where it encouraged users to post their feedback on site features and policies. The level of anger and negative comments on this forum was becoming embarrassing, and they decided to simply delete the whole thing at the end of February, with very little notice or explanation. Instead, they asked that members email them feedback directly, participate in a private “Beta group,” or use other channels that would be out of the public eye.
In this announcement (and I’ve also taken a screenshot for you, because embarrassing material on the CS site has a way of disappearing), the company said “If you do not wish to lose this content, please screenshot or backup the content that you wish to save.” Don Shine, one of the volunteer moderators here in Berlin, took this advice to heart and backed up the entire forum, reposting it elsewhere so it would still be available to members.
In reaction, the company not only deleted his profile and banned him from the site — along with several other moderators who had been loudly critical of the management — they sent his web host a DMCA takedown notice (!) claiming ownership of all the content in the forums and demanding its removal.
Now, Don was obviously being deliberately provocative, but the fact that the company took the bait is astonishing. I’m no expert, but I feel confident in giving you my First Law of PR: If you find yourself sending out a DMCA takedown notice on your own customer support forums, you’ve probably made a wrong turn somewhere.
And the only thing dumber than the decision to effectively publicize their action by attacking Don was the decision to take down the forums in the first place. Half the point of a ZenDesk-type forum is to corral angry users so they won’t complain about your site all over the rest of the internet. What on Earth did they expect to happen when they took it down?
Another basic principle of delivering bad news is to get it all over with quickly and try to put it behind you. But CS has dribbled this news out bit by bit, in a way that seems designed to maximize its impact. First, they wouldn’t comment on the member removals at all. Then, as the blowback grew, they posted a comically vague notice (screenshot) discussing all the reasons they might delete a profile, without even acknowledging the particular deletions that people were upset about. But they denied that they would remove a user just for criticizing the company — “that would be silly” (no, really) — and added helpfully “It’s important to remember that members sometimes remove their own profiles.”
This patronizing pat on the head only made people angrier, of course, so it was soon followed by a slightly stronger denial from the CEO (screenshot), referencing a “rumor” about member deletions and hinting even more strongly that it may have been about “safety” or “member privacy,” while still refusing to comment on any specifics.
Like most CS members in Berlin I’ve met Don multiple times, and he’s the last person you could imagine as a risk to member safety, so that post wasn’t very convincing either. But apparently there’s no real principle behind this “no comment” policy, because just a few days later they were willing to address Don’s case more directly for this travel writer:
Shine reposted pages from the CS support forum elsewhere online when CS staff shut down the forum. Couchsurfing management hints that was grounds for his removal…
How delightfully coy! The “hinting” gets stronger on this thread that the CEO has opened up with moderators:
We’ve had very few cases of Privacy violations (e.g., scraping our site and posting elsewhere on the Internet) and in those cases we will continue to remove members without appeal. I’ve emailed Don and he has not replied. I will now consider the case closed.
Gosh, what kind of content was being “scraped” exactly, and why? Imagine if the company’s first post had just said “We took down the forums because they were getting too negative and it didn’t seem like a constructive tool anymore. We removed Don for reposting them. We know a lot of members won’t like these decisions, but we stand by them.”
That would have generated some anger, but it would have blown over. As it is, they seem determined not to make a clear statement like that until the whole thing’s on the front page of the New York Times.
Don and others have continued to raise troubling concerns about real risks to member privacy and safety, but last I checked on that single open feedback thread, the CEO was busy “hinting” at another policy of deleting references to BeWelcome, an even tinier competing travel network, which is a bit like Facebook deleting references to Twitter in your status updates — or actually, given the relative size of the two networks, more like Facebook deleting references to Diaspora. Clearly they’re focused on the big issues.
In my last post I compared this company to a bumbling cartoon villain. In the first draft it was the Washington Generals, the exhibition basketball team with a 40-year losing streak against the Harlem Globetrotters.
I decided that was too US-centric, but the point of both examples is that they’re not just screwing up, they’re doing so in a way that seems calculated to make their opponents look good. Their emerging defense against Don — “we didn’t ban him for dissent, we banned him because he kept us from censoring your dissent!” — also reminds me of this skit about the song I Shot the Sheriff: “I’m not sure why he’s defending himself on murder by confessing to a completely different murder.”
But I think the broader lesson here for other web companies is not to try to cover up negative user feedback in the first place — or that if you do try, you’d better be damn good at it. The internet at large is so hostile to any kind of censorship that you could easily wind up making it much worse.
[UPDATE: Thanks to TechCrunch for the link, see here for some thoughts on the latest announcement.]