She’s a crazy old lady.

Specifically, the old woman is one of those crazy people who has an obsession. She doesn’t seem happy unless she’s hassling someone over that obsession – in this case a parking spot that she believes, incorrectly, is the sole dominion of her pizza shop in Upstate New York. The space is shared by a neighboring convenience store, and the old woman regularly harangues the staff, the store manager, and the store’s customers and vendors.

She demands they stay out of her parking spot. She hurls invective and abuse at people just trying to shop or to do their jobs. And whenever possible, she calls the home offices of vendors and spins elaborate yarns about the misbehavior of those companies’ employees … all in the name of protecting that parking spot from usurpation. The ongoing nuisance is well-known to the convenience store’s staff, and they will apologize at length to anyone who runs afoul of their neighbor.

We all know a crazy person. What makes this particular crazy lady significant is that she owns a pizza shop. When the story of her behavior was related by a reader, the natural response was to look up the crazy lady’s pizza shop on Yelp.

Yelp is a popular site that hosts, among other things, reader-contributed restaurant reviews. Like so many online review sites, no attempt is made, nor would it be possible, to verify the truth or falsehood of the reviews. This is the double-edged sword that is the proliferation of crowd-sourced opinion aggregates online. There is no product, no service, no public individual engaged in business who cannot be affected, positively or negatively, by the existence of an online opinion.

Shop for anything on Amazon and you will see evaluations of virtually every product. Look up your doctor or your dentist and you will see experiences listed with these professionals. Type in the name of anyone you know who is engaged in commerce with the public and you may get hits relating to alleged interactions with these neighbors. Who knows? Some of the opinions might even be true.

In the case of the crazy lady with the pizza shop, the reviews of her business weren’t good. “Crust like cardboard” and (imagine that) brusque service were among the more frequent complaints. It has probably occurred to you that, were you one of the vendors or customers harassed by this woman, the most natural response would be to leave a negative review online. The hope, of course, would be that future customers will be discouraged from going there. This woman’s behavior, quite unrelated to her food or her service, is sufficient motivation. Irked by the former, you may easily and with the touch of a few keys state publicly what you think of the latter..

This is the business landscape against which we all must operate.

Recently, the owners of a business called “Amy’s Baking Company” in Arizona found out the hard way how your personal and even your online behavior can affect your virtual reputation. The business was profiled by Fox Network’s “Kitchen Nightmares.” That’s when their troubles began in earnest.

If you’ve seen the popular show starring celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, you know it doesn’t bode well for your business to be profiled. Eateries examined by Ramsay invariably display some degree of deep dysfunction. Why anyone would want to go to a restaurant after Ramsay has visited, showing it to be incompetently run and sometimes improperly cleaned, is anyone’s guess. Many of the restaurants “saved” by Ramsay go on to fail nonetheless. Amy’s Baking Company, however, posed so daunting a set of problems that Ramsay walked away from the project. He could not help them.

The episode portrayed Amy’s Baking Company owners as rude, abusive and greedy, pocketing staff tips and railing against customers who dared to complain. Outraged, viewers turned to the eatery’s Facebook and Yelp pages to vent their spleens. That’s when things got out of control.

The owners appear to have posted a series of profanity-laced rants in response to viewer complaints. This just made posters and customers angrier. The exchanged painted the company’s ownership as unstable, abusive and unable to accept criticism – fueling the controversy started by Ramsay’s show. Eventually, the folks at Amy’s turned to the last refuge for those who’ve put their feet in their mouths online.

They claimed they’d been hacked.

Screaming that your account has been compromised, that you’ve called in the FBI, that you’re not responsible for all those awful things you’ve said, is now the go-to excuse for people who want to unring the bell of ill-considered speech. From disgraced politicians like Anthony Weiner to unraveling celebrities like Amanda Bynes (who claims she was impersonated by someone who said nasty things about singer Rihanna, on the microblogging site Twitter), every last Internet big-mouth who regrets his or her words trots out the excuse of being “hacked.”

It wasn’t me. I wasn’t there. I was holding it for a friend. This isn’t want it looks like. These are not my pants. To this list of unconvincing explanations, we can add, “Somebody broke into my account.” As with so many online arguments, the simplest answer is the correct one: The folks at Amy’s Baking Company, like the crazy pizza shop owner in Upstate New York, forgot something very basic. They forgot that their public words and behavior can and will be used against them, even if they disavow those statements and deeds.

The Internet has the longest of memories and the shortest of fuses. Run any business and you will find yourself, your reputation and your conduct analyzed online. Be a jerk, commit a crime, speak out of turn, violate the boundaries of good taste … do any of these things and your online reputation will immediately take a beating. The results will be international. They will be perceptible and they will be indelible. They will come faster than you expect and hit harder than you anticipate.

This is the Internet. It isn’t for the weak.

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