Thursday, March 19, 2009

Do Cruise Critic and Other Message Boards Have An Obligation To The Public?

There is an obvious struggle between the ultimate and honest reason almost every message board exists (profit, whether it be cash or promotion) and what the public perceives the message board to be.


There are boards which are essentially technical support assistances for software. You read a thread about a question and hopefully you see the appropriate troubleshooting technique and can correct your own issues. Sort of like a more detailed FAQ. Those boards have a profit motive, because answering a question one time rather than 100 means less tech support people and less interruptions.

Other boards, such as Cruise Critic, Luxury Cruise Talk, Cruise Freeks, CruiseFools, Cruise Line Fans, etc. are of another ilk, though using different flavors of approach.

Cruise Freek has unabashedly turned its boards into a marketing site; basing many of its threads around marketing group cruises on Royal Caribbean, Carnival, etc. I am, personally, offended by that as the board was not presented as a marketing ploy or as a license to fill my inbox with email after email concerning $599 cruises. I am not saying they are not nice people; just it is not my kind of place. At least there the posters know that the forum is really a marketing site.

Luxury Cruise Talk was established as a marketing tool; a place to go when Cruise Critic told its owner that she essentially had to stop marketing through the Cruise Critic message board and it told her clients that they had to stop talking in code about specific group cruises as it was exclusionary and really for the purpose of marketing the travel agent's cruises. LCT, however, became cult-like in my opinion. It didn't matter if the cruise was one you actually wanted to go on or if the ship was actually to the standard desired. No, what mattered was that you conform and support the group. As with a cult, eventually reason and facts became clouded because supporting the group and its leader became the motivation to cruise.

Is that illegal? No. Is it right? Well, that depends on your perspective. The travel agent's motivation all along was to make money through the message board. That she was able to do. However, most people who travel at a luxury standard are not looking at who is giving them a $599 cruise opportunity, but rather who is giving them the best service and comfort believing that the travel agent actually cares about them. Personal service is, of course, the cornerstone of luxury. Now, there is no question that sometimes you (anyone) will feign joy to make a friend happy. But to feign friendship to nurture an affinity to a cult; that is another thing.

And then there is Cruise Critic. It markets itself as Cruise "Critic"; a place to critique (good and bad) everything about cruising. Its website states, "Cruise Critic is a critically acclaimed interactive community comprised of avid and first-time cruisers who enjoy the fun of planning, researching and sharing their passion for cruising. No other single resource covers the world of cruising as thoroughly as CruiseCritic.com. Cruise Critic’s world-renowned editorial staff offers objective cruise reviews, features, ports of call profiles and destination stories. The Cruise Critic message boards are the most active in the world...Since its inception in 1995, Cruise Critic has earned the status of being the most influential cruise site on the Web, and an innovator of consumer-oriented cruise travel news."

As we now know, Cruise Critic is not necessarily "critical" or "objective". It is a place where, under the express guise of "critically acclaimed" objectivity, it has become a place of overt censorship and heretofore undisclosed support of third party marketing scheme(s). We do not need to rehash the number of posts deleted because Cruise Critic didn't like the truth being posted or a cheerleader's posts being identified as cheerleading. Nor do we need to repeat again that Cruise Critic knew some of its members were being compensated by a cruise line, then gave the cruise line their information and then...get this...claims it has no way of knowing who these compensated posters are. (If you believe that, please give me your personal information, so that I share it with others and then claim I don't know who you are. Yeah, I known, it just sounds stupid.)

Cruise Critic's non-disclosure of compensated posters known to it is impossible, in my opinion, to defend when it markets itself as the "the most influential cruise site" while knowing it is not the ultimate in "critical" or "objective" information. And so you know I practice what I preach, for years I disclosed I was a travel agent when I posted there. I was blasted by some for allegedly being biased as a result. (I could never figure that out, but that is another topic.) People were able to draw their conclusion as to the reliability of my posts as a result of knowing I am a travel agent rather than just some guy that has been on a bunch of cruises.

Such a disclosure, on a site that markets itself the way it does, should be as mandatory as disclosing that the poster is compensated by the cruise lines, is the cruise line, is a tour operator or whatever. If that is too hard or too much of a hassle, then don't market Cruise Critic as either "critical" or "objective". Market it as what it really is: a For Profit Site that will allow just about anyone to post without disclosing motives and without fear that they can be challenged or outted.

There are, in my opinion, certain duties of candor if you run a site. Disclosures, if you will. It is wrong to draw the public in based upon a false or improper pretense and then keep them there through deceptive practices. JMHO.

So that is how I feel. How do you?  Post your comments on our new The Gold Standard Luxury Travel Forum.

(Note:  I am suspending the Comments section of this blog and would request your thoughts on any of my entries by posted in The Gold Standard Luxury Travel Forum.)