On Apple, Amazon, Reviewing, and Large Companies

Two interesting stories going around in the last week, which I find to be similar (even if their impact is different): Apple’s being raked over the coals for rejecting an iPhone app that duplicates Apple functionality, and Amazon’s been dealing with the customer review attack on Spore, including purging and then restoring all of the reviews.

As I’ve mentioned before, I used to manage the Amazon customer reviews business, and so I know very well what the current team is going through. My assumption is that the Apple app store review business has some similar processes and problems. Here are some things I learned while dealing with this:

You start with some philosophical rules, and you try to make them stick. Providing guidelines is the only way to start. Example philosophies for Amazon (made-up, these aren’t real, don’t quote them anywhere else) could include “our customer is the Amazon buyer” (so no, Ms. Vendor, we won’t take down the negative reviews of your book, even though you spend a lot of money on advertising with us), “we eliminate reviews with demonstrably false information”, and “fairness is more important than justice” (so if you generally write good reviews and then get caught plagiarizing once, you can be given more chances). 

All sensible on face and all make sense to folks who think in these kinds of abstractions all day – there may still be debate but these are good places to start. 

There’s a clear chain of command for decisions. The escalation path from “customer service rep in her fourth week receives a review complaint in the mail queue” to “Jeff decides the review stays” should be very clear. (In my ~2 years dealing with customer reviews, btw, Jeff only engaged once on actual content, and the issue was much larger than just reviews (and he was getting hundreds of mails on this topic) – he generally trusted the heads of these teams to do the right thing as long as they could articulate the philosophy.)

All of this sounds good, of course, but then people get involved. And customer service reps are trying to interpret the philosophies (if they can find them among hundreds of pages of other rules), and some of them are judgment calls (what is “demonstrably false?” If I say “the defibrillator didn’t work and my dad died,” is someone going to check? are comments on voting records trustworthy? etc.) that different people will make, and of course you don’t want Jeff or Steve Jobs or anyone making every decision.

So it’s messy, and when it’s messy, strange things happen – reviews appear and disappear, apps go away and come back (like Netshare), etc. 

This is a long way of saying that it’s entirely likely that the banning of Podcaster is a problem of human judgment in a theoretically well-structured system – not least because the decision seems inconsistent – and that could easily come back, not because of a correction of a philosophy, but because of a correction of a human error.

Now, it’s Apple’s responsibility to make that correction, and then to treat the errant employee with respect and look at how the company can do a better job. 


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