Anatomy of a scandal

By Ezra Butler on July 2nd, 2012

Last week the tech media industry was awash with outrage after some intrepid reporting from the Wall Street Journal: specifically, Orbitz’s apparently insidious practice of showing higher price hotels to owners of Apple products. The Atlantic’s Megan Garber called it a “scoop” and defended the “discriminatory” practice. Travel site Tnooz reported that “all hands are on deck at Orbitz today as it looks to diffuse the impact of [the] article.”

CNN recorded how Twitter was swamped with angry, illiterate Orbitz customers. PC Mag covered the backlash on the Orbitz Facebook page. Using Twitter, the chief executive of Orbitz forced the Wall Street Journal to remove their paywall from the piece, so people would understand the extent of the program and not jump to conclusions about the price-gouging of wealthier MacBook owners.

The back story, as explained in the original report, is quite simple. On a hunch, Orbitz ran a query on their database to see if the kind of computer a person owns results in different patterns of choosing hotels. Researchers for the company concluded affirmatively that Mac users tend to spend 30 per cent more on better hotels, and tend to choose 4-5 star hotels more frequently than PC owners. Therefore, Orbitz chose to display different initial results to Macs than to PCs.

This is not the first time a company has performed research and drawn conclusions on the habits of Apple product owners. An OKCupid blog post from 2010 revealed that iPhone users have more sex than their Blackberry and Android counterparts. (An infographic I helped create using the dataset of the Little Black Book app underscored just how sexually active some iPhone users are.)

To be frank, the facts as reported are of limited interest. More fascinating is the genesis of the original article.

It does not seem Dana Mattioli, the WSJ writer, simply stumbled upon different results when searching for hotels on Orbitz on different computers. The story reads more like Orbitz actually supplied Ms Mattioli with data and interviews with Orbitz executives. In other words, Orbitz’s PR team likely created this story to create buzz around how Mac users care more about comfort and style than PC users.

A shocking revelation, I’m sure you’ll agree.

The article informed us that Barney Harford, the Twittering chief executive officer of Orbitz, actively recruited statisticians after making data mining a priority upon his arrival in 2009.

After being made aware of this practice, Orbitz competitors Expedia, Mr Harford’s previous employer, Priceline and Travelocity denounced the process of using other potentially “discriminatory” data points to create a more relevant experience when searching for a hotel. I wonder if they would also not base the order of hotels shown based on the home postal code of the traveller or look at data from their social graph to identify smarter patterns.

While, as a public company, it is laudable for Orbitz to employ any legal means necessary to raise revenues, it is idiotic for them to share the “secret sauce” in an attempt for some short lived PR gains. Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian’s travel site Hipmunk allows a traveller to sort by “agony” of the trip before sorting by “price” of airline flights, and “ecstasy” of the stay before sorting by the “price” of hotels. The transparent nature of Mr Ohanian’s practices can be held in contrast to that of Mr Harford’s.

The goal of the PR pitch and subsequent article was obviously to capitalise on the popular stereotype of the urbane Mac user. It was meant to assuage the collective ego of the denizens of the Cult of the Mac. To paraphrase nineteenth century American poet John Godfrey Saxe, people don’t want to see sausage being made; they just want it to be tasty.

The depressing conclusion of this episode is that, unbeknownst to most commentators, Orbitz has manufactured a scandal only money could buy.