The Dilbert Controversy and the Ethics of Online Reviews

Last Updated Apr 20, 2011 1:52 PM EDT

Recently the Wall Street Journal ran an interesting essay by Dilbert creator Scott Adams. More interesting was what happened next.
Adams described why business school students should be required to take fewer general education classes and more business and entrepreneurship classes. Users on MetaFilter commented on the article, taking shots at his opinions and at Adams himself. Adams responded under the username "PlannedChaos" instead of using his own name.

Some of the highlights from his responses, as noted by Gawker:

  • "As far as Adams' ego goes, maybe you don't understand what a writer does for a living. No one writes unless he believes that what he writes will be interesting to someone. Everyone on this page is talking about him, researching him, and obsessing about him. His job is to be interesting, not loved. As someone mentioned, he has a certified genius I.Q., and that's hard to hide."
  • "I assume you don't hate all self-promoters, such as homeless people applying for jobs. Is it Adams' enormous success at self-promotion that makes you jealous and angry?"
Adams later admitted to posting under an anonymous username, something he's apparently done before. To summarize his reasoning: If other people can hide behind an anonymous username, why can't I?

Arguing Adams should have taken the higher road is easy. He was clearly irritated by readers who could say anything they wished -- not just about his opinions, but about him -- and do so anonymously. He engaged in the same behavior he resented.

Still, Adams only did what some authors do every day. Go to Amazon and check out books not on the bestseller list. Often you'll find just four or five glowing reviews, all posted within a few days. Some authors (and publishers) ask colleagues, friends, and others to post positive reviews. (In fact, you can hire freelancers to write positive reviews for books unread or for products unused.) Comment and review anonymity makes generating a little self-buzz a lot easier.

And in a larger sense Adams only did what restaurant owners, retailers, and businesses do every day. I know of at least one entrepreneur who routinely searches for online reviews about his products; when he finds a negative review, his staff posts an anonymous, positive review to counter to the negative review. I feel sure other businesses post anonymous comments and reviews.

Some even get caught; a marketing executive for Sony Pictures famously wrote blurbs used in promotional materials for several movies under the name "David Manning."

What do you think is fair -- and is responding or posting anonymously ever considered fair game?


Photo courtesy flickr user Felix M. Cobos, CC 2.0

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    Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business from managing a 250-employee book manufacturing plant. Everything else he picked up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest CEOs and leaders in business. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeff_Haden.