At Work & Public Square

Four Ways Christians Can Transform Behavior in the Online Marketplace

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A conversation is growing around how we interact with each other online. One of the biggest areas being discussed is that of online reviews and how we communicate our opinions on review sites like Yelp.

As Christians called to be holy in all areas of life, including the marketplace, how do we communicate in a godly manner when the marketplace goes digital?

When our primary interaction is with people across a counter, we have obvious cues that we should treat people with courtesy and respect.

However, it is different to shop in a store where the clerk lives in your neighborhood than it is to shop online. Often now we shop online and never interact with people.

If we do interact with a person, it is usually with the anonymity of a user name. Does that level of anonymity change the way we deal with people?

It appears that it does.

The Promise and Peril of the Online Marketplace

Online reviews have some positive aspects. They can cause a business to improve, as Chris Horst shares in his most recent post.

However, online reviews can also unfairly influence future customers’ perceptions due to only a few malicious customers. Also, unlike word of mouth, negative online reviews can linger long after the business has corrected the problem.

Contributing to the problem, online reviews are often impersonal because they are usually anonymous. This provides a layer of safety for a reviewer, allowing them to be more frank in some cases. In other cases it may release customers to be dishonestly negative.

In a recent journal article, “Trolls Just Want to Have Fun,” researchers evaluated individual personalities against online commenting habits. They were looking for a relationship between the dark tetrad of personality (narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism) and online behavior.

According to their research, trolling online has a strong correlation to personality traits that find pleasure in the pain of others.

Trolling behavior is evident on marketplace websites or review sites. On such commercial sites, the goal of the negative commenters is typically to undermine the credibility of a product or a service.

Given the penchant for trolling online, how should Christians do online reviews and offer a better model for online engagement?

Be Truthful

Future customers will likely read your reviews of a product or service. Highlight both the positives and negatives about the product. Be careful not to overstate either the praise or criticism. This is consistent with the Ninth Commandment, which prohibits telling untruths to harm your neighbor (Ex 20:17). In this case, both future customers and the people associated with the business are your neighbors.

Be Humane

When you are writing an online review, remember there are people on the other end. The product or service you are reviewing was created and staffed by people. Imagine you are reading your comment to a person. If you wouldn’t stand in front of someone and say what you are writing, then don’t write it. This is an application of the “Golden Rule” (Matt. 7:12).

Be Humble

Many reviewers seem to believe that their tastes are impeccable and should be the standard for all other customers.

You may think the food at an ethnic restaurant is terrible, but is that because it is poorly cooked or because that type of food is not to your liking? Was the rafting trip really a bad experience, or do you dislike outdoor adventures?

It may be best to qualify your statements: “This was the first time I’ve had Thai food and I found it too spicy.” This is an honest and humble statement that is more helpful than, “The food tastes terrible! Don’t eat here ever!”

Be Accurate

Review the product or service accurately. Often when there are a large number of reviews of a product or service, there will be some reviews that are unrelated to the product or service. For example, if a package carrier did not deliver a product on-time or negligently damaged a package, that shouldn’t be counted against the product. This is an aspect of truthfulness that seems often ignored in online reviews.

The marketplace has changed, and Christians have an obligation to behave virtuously even in an online environment. Online review sites provide a way to share experiences to benefit future customers, but they also have the potential to significantly harm companies and individuals.

We should seek to engage in our online activity in a way that honors Christ, because, as Jesus warns us, “on the judgment day people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matt 12:36). I believe this is true of our online words just as much as the words we speak in person.

What do you think about how people are interacting online these days? Leave your comments here

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