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Being a Sociopath Pays

The NY Times has a fascinating article about an internet entrepreneur who sell eyeglasses on the web. Vitaly Borker found — almost by accident — that on the web negative publicity works better than good publicity. The more he abuses his customers, threatening them and calling them names, the more they complain to consumer websites, which then pushes up his page rank on Google and gives him better placement in search results.

The problem is that the Google page rank algorithm, which is based in part on how many links you have from respected websites, can’t tell the difference between a positive mention and a scathingly negative mention. So the more he gets mentioned in respected consumer websites, the more traffic and sales he gets!

I have a similar problem with my Google ads on this site. I often get emails from people complaining that my most negative posts are often accompanied by ads for the very person about whom I am being negative. But how can Google tell, especially if I am being sarcastic or ironic?

What I find ironic about this article is that they seem to be targeting only Mr. Borker. Yes, Borker is acting like a sociopath. He doesn’t care at all how many people he frightens and abuses in his quest for profits. But he does try to be careful to tread within the law. To him it is a game, and a profitable one at that.

But what about all the corporations that do the same thing? Corporations that make money off of war and death, by driving up the cost of medicines that cost people their lives, or by manipulating the economy? Corporations that by their money-saving negligence cause massive oil spills or other environmental disasters?

Pretty much by design, large corporations act like sociopaths every day. Corporations are required to make as much money as possible, in any way possible (within the law). The NY Times attacks Borker, but ignores the 800 billion ton gorilla. If anything, Borker is being honest about what he does, probably because he doesn’t have a PR department like big corporations such as BP do.

UPDATE: Google has modified its page rank algorithm to identify businesses that provide bad service and lower their position in search results. Hopefully this will stop rewarding sociopaths like Borker.

UPDATE: Borker has been arrested and charged with mail fraud, wire fraud, making interstate threats, and cyberstalking. The judge denied Borker’s request for bail saying he was either “verging on psychotic” or had “an explosive personality”.



  1. Rob wrote:

    I can answer your questions about ads, links, and other SEO aspects. You’re biggest point though is when it involves companies and entities dealing in life or death situations in which Borker plays no part in but works as a parallel to a bigger game being played with much higher stakes.

    In the case of Borker, he can just move on, create a new pseudonym and continue business as usual in a new market. With those corporations, they know we’ll never get mad enough to “burn down city hall” as the saying goes.

    Sunday, November 28, 2010 at 2:40 am | Permalink
  2. Jonah wrote:

    How is what some of the stuff borker did not breaking the law? He threatens a woman with violence and she hopefully has the emails to prove it and he also impersonated her by reinstating a charge. At least the latter is a felony.

    Sunday, November 28, 2010 at 7:02 am | Permalink
  3. starluna wrote:

    In NY, the AG tends to be pretty aggressive about these kinds of business practices. I suspect, now that this has hit the NYT, the folks involved in this will find themselves on the wrong side of an investigation. Or at least, I hope so.

    Sunday, November 28, 2010 at 11:06 am | Permalink
  4. Iron Knee wrote:

    Jonah, how is what some of the stuff done by Halliburton, Blackwater, Monsanto, Nestle, and other large corporations not breaking the law?

    To a sociopath, the only issue is whether they can get away with it.

    Starluna, even if they shut down his present company, I’m sure he will just do it again in a different company. He even said as much. Shutting down individual companies is not the point. Even shutting down people like Borker is not the point. Figuring out ways to stop rewarding companies for acting like sociopaths is required.

    Sunday, November 28, 2010 at 11:41 am | Permalink
  5. Iron Knee wrote:

    From Balloon Juice:

    They got everything they wanted the last couple of years, the stock market has rebounded, bonuses are hitting records, corporate profits are at an all time high, no one went to jail for their obvious crimes, and they still aren’t happy and think Obama, who has been business friendly to a fault, is “hostile” to them.

    At some point, we are going to have to realize we are dealing with sociopaths.

    Sunday, November 28, 2010 at 12:04 pm | Permalink
  6. “Figuring out ways to stop rewarding companies for acting like sociopaths is required.”

    That’s only part of it. The real part is to also “incentivize” being a “good corporate citizen”.

    We need not only a stick to punish such behaviors, but carrots. That was the excuse for a lot of our current mess of a tax-code. We can see how well *that* lack of brilliance worked. Nor can we just point to a healthier economy / more stable society as sufficient carrots, now that the corporations have been addicted to extreme profits.

    Instead, we need to create carrots that feed that addiction without actually being poisoning drugs. And no, I’ve not figured that one out. All I know is that what we’re doing with regulations / tax incentives fails miserably, poisoning both the body politic and the economy.

    (I just woke up: I hope my metaphors didn’t mix too badly.)

    Monday, November 29, 2010 at 7:06 am | Permalink
  7. patriotsgt wrote:

    Although I disagree that “Obama, who has been business friendly to a fault”, It’s simple to understand why politicians are friendly to business. Campaign contributions, including Obama. Both he and his predecessor put wall street executives in charge of our treasury. Would you put an alcoholic in charge of the still, a thief in charge of the register? The real sociopaths are our elected officials from top to bottom. They’re addicted to corp and special interest money and will do whatever it takes to keep it flowing.

    Monday, November 29, 2010 at 7:15 am | Permalink
  8. starluna wrote:

    IK – NY state already has laws that prohibit much of the behavior discussed in this article. As Jonah pointed out, this individual has committed at least one misdemeanor (making threats) and one felony (identity theft). If I thought about it more, I could probably add a bunch of other violations (wire fraud, mail fraud) and I would not be surprised if he has also violated tax laws.

    The behavior described in the article clearly violates laws against abusive and deceptive practices. I am of the view that we can use existing laws to enforce good business practices. What this individual did can likely put him behind bars. At least for the time he is in jail, he would not be able to operate his business. A conviction on identity theft may also make it more difficult to get the business licenses needed to operate in NYC.

    What laws cannot do, however, is tell Google how to structure their search algorithms. Even I would say that is going too far.

    And frankly, I might put myself in the camp of asking people to do a bit more to protect their own interests. The way in which this person’s business gets a higher Google ranking is because of the numerous online complaints about him. And yet none of the victims interviewed in the article did any due diligence to look at the apparently many reviews of this guy’s bad business?

    I’m generally a proponent of government regulation of business practices. One of the important roles of government is to structure and regulate the market. At the same time, individuals need to also take some responsibility too. It would be one thing if you are talking about businesses where it is difficult to get reviews on them (locksmiths, for example). However, anyone who can spend $400 on contact lenses and a single pair of frames can probably spend some money on a subscription to Angie’s List. Or spend 10 or 15 minutes looking up reviews on Google about a merchant that she’s about to drop $400 on. Or perhaps, she should walk into one of the hundreds of similar brick and mortar stores in NYC and support her local businesses.

    While I sympathize with these people and would try to help them recover their losses and prosecute this guy, I do not think they are the hapless victims that the article makes them out to be.

    Monday, November 29, 2010 at 8:50 am | Permalink
  9. Bert wrote:

    Maybe we are the real sociopaths. We keep electing officials who keep the same practices in place. Yet, we are expecting things to change.

    Monday, November 29, 2010 at 12:12 pm | Permalink
  10. Iron Knee wrote:

    Thought Dancer — two sides of the same coin.

    Monday, November 29, 2010 at 3:45 pm | Permalink