Shut Up, She Explained: Cyberbullying Enters the Lexicon

Devastating for teenage girls, maybe, but for grownup REALTORS?

I’ve been assiduously staying away from Zebragate, except for stating my support for my friend Daniel Rothamel, because the issue is a tough one. All trademark cases tend to be, where two parties both believe they have the right to use a particular trademark in a particular way. Unfortunately, the dispute/debate/whatever has turned a corner and entered a Twilight Zone where logic and reality get suspended in the heat of partisan passion, and there is now something to discuss, about which I feel strongly.

Inman News reports on the “chain reaction” response from the community in response to the Zebragate lawsuit, and has this:

[Denise] Lones, whose company provides marketing and other business services to real estate agents, says supporters of Rothamel launched “one of the most aggressive online bullying campaigns I’ve seen,” after a Feb. 25 story about the lawsuit published by Inman News.

And later, Frances Flynn Thorsen (whom I consider to be an active, valuable member of the, is quoted as saying:

“The issue is not about the lawsuit anymore, it’s about cyber bullying and the mob mentality,” Thorsen told Inman News, elaborating on a blog post she wrote in Lones’ defense.

Maybe cyberbullying — otherwise known as being mean to someone on the Internet — is a soul-crushing devastating thing to teenagers with fragile, developing egos. But to employ it in the context of a couple of grownups having a commercial disagreement is intended to silence dissent, stifle debate, and take a moral high ground where none exists.

Are We Pre-Teen Bieber Fans?

First of all, here’s a definition of cyberbullying from an organization who actually thinks there is a cyberbullying problem, and that “we need to do something about this” (as in pass laws infringing upon the First Amendment):

“Cyberbullying” is when a child, preteen or teen is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another child, preteen or teen using the Internet, interactive and digital technologies or mobile phones. It has to have a minor on both sides, or at least have been instigated by a minor against another minor. [Emphasis mine]

The entire underlying premise behind the notion of “cyberbullying” is that immature children do not have the mental and emotional capacity to deal with social rejection that supposedly grownup people do.

As far as I know, none of the people involved in Zebragate are children. And for even supporters of the concept of “cyber-whatever” to classify an activity as “cyber-harassment”, there has to be a child victim involved. Why is that?

It’s because we as a society believe that when two adults are involved, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. A lesson most of us learned in nursery rhymes. When only words — even strong ones — have been used, that’s just called “bad publicity” or “arguing”.

There Is No Right To Positive Search Results

Contrary to what some members of our great Republic might think, there is no right not to be offended. This means that everyone else has the right to insult you.

There IS a right against defamation, but those have to allege false facts: “Rob wears a toupee” would be actionable, whereas “Rob is a moron” is not.

Should words cross over into action, then crimes have been committed. Are the folks invoking “cyberbullying” claiming things have moved into action? No. Was someone’s corporate website hacked? No. A DoS attack launched? No. Personalized death threats of the kind that say Sarah Palin receives on a daily basis? No.

The whining is over negative search results on Google. As it turns out, there is no right to positive search results. If you do something that pisses off a lot of people — fairly or unfairly — then, you’re going to end up with crappy results ranking highly in Google. Hopefully, enough people think you’re a classy guy so that counter posts and expressions of support and the like can push those negative results off the first page. That’s Internet Reputation Management 101.

There Is No Right Not To Be Boycotted

Another problem apparently is that “the mob” — or as it appears, one single member of said mob — threatened a boycott of the Lones Group’s business:

While some who have commented on the lawsuit said they wanted to help Lones with damage control, some agents stated they would never do business with her, and some have called for a boycott of her business.

On the Google place page for The Lones Group, one anonymous commenter also threatened to boycott other companies that hire Lones.

Well, which is it? “Some” or “one anonymous commenter”? Either way, does it matter? People have the right to boycott anybody they want, for any reason they want, or for no reason. People boycott businesses because of political views of the CEO (see, e.g., Whole Foods),because of manufacturing processes, or because the boycotters are ill-tempered sociopaths.

Does a business have some sort of right not to be boycotted? Of course not. Once again, if you’re providing a valuable product or service, your customers will think the boycott is ridiculous, and you’ll be troubled all the way to the bank.

The Cult of Niceness

The reason I’m devoting thousands of words to this unimportant issue is that I wish to smash the Cult of Niceness that reigns over real estate. It’s preventing us from getting real with each other when we need to.  If we’re going to get this worked up over something like a trademark infringement lawsuit — a topic that lawyers with years of experience have trouble navigating because of inherent uncertainty — then how the hell are we ever going to deal with really contentious topics? Like the fact that some brokers and agents are straight up unethical sons of bitches who need to be hounded out of the industry by a “coordinated mob attack”? Is Frances Flynn Thorsen going to invoke the Code of Ethics and its omerta provision if some NAR member decides to start slamming this guy?:

A Sheboygan Falls Realtor convicted of felony theft for stealing and auctioning off property from a client’s house continues to work as a Realtor and as of today remained licensed by the State of Wisconsin.

Well, I’m not a REALTOR, so I’m not bound by the omerta code. Caleb Hall needs to be condemned and told to resign, preferably by a wide-spread coordinated attack campaign, until any Google search for his name or the name of his brokerage is filled with “toxic” and damaging posts, all of which would hopefully ruin his and his brokerage’s business.

I suppose that would be a “good, positive” use of the dangerous Internet attack mob posse. Give me a break.

Fact is, our industry would benefit from a little less nice and a little more honest.

I thought Dan and Lones Group both handled the unpleasantness as well as they both could. I thought Lones Group’s response, on the merits, was extremely good. Trademark disputes are dicey things every single time, and the principal, Denise Lones, appears to be a well-respected veteran of the business. As a business owner, and a marketer, I have a ton of empathy for her decision, and as an attorney, I think her position is pretty strong. Some judge somewhere will decide the issue, or the parties will negotiate and come to some settlement. None of that is any of my business.

But, when Lones Group and its supporters start invoking “cyberbullying” — as if the Lones Group were a fat acne-ridden 13 year old — or whining about “coordinated attacks”, this is where I roll my eyes.


So here’s what I’ll say about any social media shitstorm event as takeaways. Let those with eyes perceive.

  • There is no right to a positive reputation.
  • There is no right against getting your feelings hurt.
  • There is no right to having Google searches return only wonderful glowing reviews; you want those, go make them happen. Piss off a large number of people, and expect bad things. That’s life.
  • Life is unfair. Deal with it.
  • Whining about cyberbullying makes you sound like a child, because… well, grownups cannot be bullied on the frikkin’ Internet. If some huge guy is jabbing his finger in your face, and you’re fearful of your safety, fine… let’s talk about threats and inappropriate behavior. But words? Blogposts and tweets?
  • The mob is a positive or a negative, depending on the issue, but using words like “the mob” suggests you’re not part of the community. That’s fine; you don’t have to be, and you can go make your own “community/mob”. But do please climb down from the high horse you rode in on.

So, can we please drop this ridiculous term “cyberbullying” as it comes to disagreements we’ll all have periodically about one thing or another? C’mon, man!

Because when I hear someone using the term “cyberbullying” and “coordinated attack” and such, what I hear is, “Shut up!” No thanks. This is the Internet. Words cannot break bones, though they might hurt feelings and Google SERPS. Let argument and debate reign supreme, because in the end, the truth does matter.


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Rob Hahn

Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

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47 thoughts on “Shut Up, She Explained: Cyberbullying Enters the Lexicon”

  1. Rob, Thanks for articulating what a number of us have been thinking over the last few days. I have been waiting to see how you would weigh in on this one.

  2. Excellent post Rob! I found it tiresome that many of us were described as a mob &marauders simply because we expressed an opinion supporting Dan.

  3. Rob,

    Many of us who instruct REALTORS(R) have begun to include copyright law. Issues like this did not occur as often in the past because we didn’t have the instant access to fame and fortune that is provided by the reach of the Internet. People get caught up in an idea, a vision, and they rush to “brand” it. If the domain name is available…well, isn’t that enough? This has two fine people in a tug-of-war because all bases were not touched. You bring a very viable view to the bruhaha.

  4. Rob,

    “Zebra fever” is real estate’s equivalent of “Bieber fever.”

    I’m hoping that both go away at some point in the not too distant future… 🙂

    Oh, and by the way, nice post. Provocative as always…


  5. Excellent post. And the principals on both sides have likely spread their name recognition as a result. I know Daniel, and he is a class act. I had never previously heard of the Lones Group. But the big question is… What will each take away from this?

    BTW, instead of a lawsuit, had Denise called Daniel and had a chat, she might not have found herself in the middle of the current shitstorm. The only people really benefiting at this time are the lawyers, charging by the hour.

  6. Thank you. Finally, someone has the balls to tell it like it is. I guess I’m old school … Concerns about self-esteem and political correctness make me sick. This is real life, not parks & rec t-ball. We don’t all get a trophy, there are winners and losers, and sometimes life sucks so get a helmet and go back to work.

    There are always going to be repercussions to every decision one makes. If you can’t take the heat from the opposing side then you probably shouldn’t have taken a stance to begin with.

  7. Let’s hope we soon hear the “Closing Arguments.” This will make great material for social media instructors until the next time. My take away with all this is when there’s a problem, conflict, or dispute meeting face to face will humanize the situation much more effectively than social media battles. The important question is, who will win the war?

  8. Michael, I have a teenage daughter and I hereby testify that Zebra Fever is nothing compared to Bieber Fever!

    Rob, doesn’t all this hinge on how long The Lones Group has been using the zebra theme and how it was trademark protected?

    I’ve got to think that their attorneys must believe they have the proof needed to make their case.

    • Note that I’ve stated that the actual dispute between Lones and Dan is an extremely complex one, as most trademark disputes are. I have no issues with Denise, and her supporters, speaking up for her rights; I have no issues with Dan, and his supporters (myself included), speaking up for his. But chances are, none of us know all of the details. Besides, the actual legal dispute is none of any of our business. The principals will figure it out.

      What I’m taking issue with is the idea of “cyberbullying” as if anything done on the Internet short of action — hacking, DOS attacks, actual defamation, etc. — is somehow illicit or bad because it hurts somebody’s feelings or Google search or reputation. I have a general problem with attempts to censor, silence, or otherwise shut down debate and argument.

      • I think an attempt to censor/silence manifested when Lones, weary from the after-effects of an over-emotional group whipping the rhetoric into a frenzy revealed how she felt. She felt bullied. And as you have eloquently pointed out, that term was incorrect.

        BTW, I’m currently boycotting a coffee shop in Chicago that won’t offer free or discounted refills during the same visit with the same cup. WTF, right??

        Does this mean I’m an ill-tempered sociopath? Your diagnosis would be appreciated.

  9. I would never call you a ‘moron’, but I’m astonished that the hair is real. I would have bet money that your internet persona has a weave — not a toupee, but in the family of ‘toupees’. My bad, sorry about that.

  10. For the first few days I made no comments. When I commented that this is was Trademark lawsuit not a popularity contest the response to my comments publicly was negative. Privately I got emails, DMs and Facebook Messages saying they agree with me.

    There was one public comment that really bothered me in particular. When I responded with an example of another possible trademark infringement/lawsuit the response was “I guarantee if that happens – that the same thing will happen and whoever that company or individual is will destroy their entire brand in 24 hours too.”

    • Andrea-
      That comment was mine on Chris Brogan’s blog post. Sorry I rubbed you the wrong way with that, but let me clarify a bit. My comment was in response to your comment saying someone had recently trademarked the 365 things to do concept & wondering if it was Dale Chumbley. If someone files a trademark lawsuit against Dale Chumbley and what he’s done with 365 things to do — then yes, whoever does that is going to destroy their online brand in a matter of hours. Dale is one of the nicest guys in the entire industry, loved by everyone, and just going about his daily life selling real estate and sharing his learnings along the way. Saying that IF someone sues him, they will ruin their brand is not an opinion; it’s just stating the obvious. The whole industry would come to his defense if that were to happen, much as they did for Daniel.

      I totally agree with you that this SHOULD be a trademark lawsuit and not a popularity contest. For better or for worse, people/companies that file lawsuits against well respected individuals with lots of friends damage their own online reputation in the process — regardless of the merits of the case. Nothing is going to change that. It’s just human nature to stick up for your friends. And that’s all I (and everyone else) was doing.

      • Well, clearly Lones lost the popularity contest. But it seems that fat lady is singing in ways and overtures that no one could have imagined just three days ago.

        It’s a lesson to us all. Keep our (all of ours) big fat mouths (and keyboards) shut.

  11. Rob, As I saw the cyber-bullying accusations, I was thinking: “Give me a break.” Your post fully articulated that fleeting thought. I so appreciate writers like you and others who can give us a great analysis of issues like these. You keep me thinking. Keep it up.

  12. Well Rob, no one can argue with the fact that you are passionate about the truth and what it means to be authentic. We need more people inside our industry willing to speak up against exactly what you referenced regarding the unethical actions of the Sheboygan Realtor. In addition, the RE State Boards should be far more aggressive in their sanctions than they have been to date. They must know where the bodies are buried even if it isn’t a popular position to take….calling out their own.

    As to the cyberbully accusations in general…I believe that the RE business is one of the few industries that has an inordinate percentage of its ranks failing to realize they are businesspeople. Instead these individuals approach the business with a tremendous sense of entitlement which colors how they react to their competitors and ANY negative comments. They really DO need to grow up or leave the business.

  13. Awesome take Rob, especially the takeways. My fave? Life is unfair Deal with it! More people need to embrace that fact…

  14. Rob,

    There was NO debate WHATSOEVER. You are right…there is no right to positive results in the SERP and everything you said was completely right on.

    Lones had her remedy. The lawsuit. Rothamel gave up his “stripes” (which was sad) but in a real world where biz is biz Lones right to sue is her remedy.

    Who lost more? Well since you guys are so big on branding. I’d say BOTH people lost.

    The crew stuffed Google. Lones chose to do it her way.

    What was done in the ‘osphere’ was not cool. It wasn’t wrong. It was orchestrated and designed to killer online reputation. She paid the price. BOTH parties paid the price.

    Sorry. You know how the cliche goes: All is fair in love and war.

    • Kevin, I say you’re entitled to your opinion, and entitled to voice them however you choose, of course. You take great issue with “orchestrated and designed to kill online reputation”. I don’t.

      But now you and Frances are invoking NAR and Code of Ethics and all that jazz for one reason, and one reason only: to silence people like Todd Carpenter and Bill Lublin, and to punish them for voicing their personal opinions, none of which any reasonable person would attribute to NAR. I’m sorry, but I have a far bigger problem with that than any “orchestrated” trashing of Google SERPS.

      I think you and others who feel the way you do should continue to just debate (coz that’s what I call it, no matter how passionate), consider what people did shameful, not cool, whatever. But I’m really quite tired of lines like, “Is [this] the type of conduct NAR wants it members to learn and emulate? A key social media staffer and educator take sides in a high profile legal dispute … make judgment on the merits of a legal case! This is the lesson they want Realtors to learn?” as if the minute some person goes to work for an Association in any way, shape, or form, you can use that as a cudgel to get them to shut up about their personal views — or else, face termination or whatever.

      I know which one seems more like bullying to me. YMMV.

      Wouldn’t your energies be better spent driving the Caleb Halls of the world out of the industry, rather than trying to get Todd Carpenter fired because he said something you didn’t like?

      • My apologies – wasn’t speaking just to you, but to all those who have drawn the wrong lesson from this. And frankly, you and Frances have been leaders of the opposition — and quite effectively, I might add. I just don’t agree, but that don’t mean I can’t admire your (plural) position or tenacity… except for when you start invoking NAR.

        BTW, is this better: “I agree that NAR and the faux paus that they continue to make in the SM arena, while purporting to be guru’s/rockstars/ etc AT THE EXPENSE OF THEIR MEMBERS is repugnant.” I do believe that is from your keyboard. 🙂 In what way, shape, or form has NAR involved itself in this little kerfuffle?

      • Yes that is from me.

        Oh, Todd Carpenter that @tcor person. He is not in my realm at this moment. Quite frankly I could give two shits about him. I think that he has trampled over so many people in the last few years; it is a joke he still has a job (see @gregcooper, me and the Indiana Association of Realtors, et al).

        But back to me. I sell a lot of real estate. I can’t be bothered w/failed mortgage people who have to take a desk job because their “groundbreaking” blogs um, failed to produce, um, CASH…AND had to move to Chicago.

        Didn’t @tcar also tweet about getting an underage girls booze recently? eeeh?

        Yeah that’s a social media success story for ya! @tcar’s gonna hate you for bringing that up.

        You asked for it Rob. You know what? I’m Italian. I can do “mob” 1000 times better, sneakier and be downright devastating.

        YOU brought up @tcar.

        There was an email that went around to 250 heads of Association of Realtors about this very matter.

        I like Bill Lublin. Just as he disagrees w/me. I am appalled that a man of his integrity went down the easy path with the mob. I’m shocked.

        Rob, they are call ramifications. When you are linked to a large corporation you have to tow the corporate line. You know not to take sides with one member over another. This is elementary stuff, Rob.

        Jay Thompson, I have less of a problem with. Jay’s transparent. He just does this for the backlinks. God he’s good.

      • Kevin, The quotes are from MY keyboard. I’m called a bully again. Todd Carpenter represents more than 1 million members of a trade association. He wrote blog posts on his personal and business blogs, throwing considerable social media weight and authority behind one member of that association, at the expense of another at a time when there is a lawsuit pending in a Federal Court.
        Of course NAR is connected to that action!

        Bill Lublin is contracted by NAR to design and administer a program to teach Realtors how to use the Web and behave responsibly online. He lends his authority and weight to the topic similarly.

        I shine a light on this and this makes me the bully?

      • Frances, as far as I know NAR is the client of Bill’s company, SMMI. Should I think that you are representing all of your clients with these opinions of yours? Should I be calling your clients and offering some opinion about how inappropriate this behavior is? If I did, wouldn’t you call it bullying, at a minimum?

        And by your standards, it is clear that all of your personal blogposts, personal opinions, personal tweets, and Facebook updates from 2008-2009 can and should be attributed to Trulia, where you worked as the Trulia Voices Community Manager. That’s interesting.

        No one, and I mean no one, thought that what Bill and Todd posted was anything other than their personal opinions. No one, and no one, thought NAR had anything whatsoever to do with this unfortunate episode… except, apparently, you and Kevin. That’s not “shining a light”; that’s “drumming up fake outrage” where none existed.

        It’s not enough to just disagree, no matter how loudly, and say, “You’re wrong, and I don’t like what you’re doing to poor Denise Lones”? You gotta bring people’s bosses and clients into the picture? Really? Consider what example _you_ are setting in this.

        Ahh, anyway, I think we’re just about done with this until the next round of censorship, invoking NAR, and so on blows up. I know I am. Thanks for your contribution to the debate and issue, even if I disagree with the position you’re taking.

      • So Rob you are saying that the outrage against Rothamel started from Thompson and Meyers was organic?

        I don’t know if you know it or not but BOTH Meyers and Thompson have issued retractions or apologies.

        Why would someone do that if they didn’t do anything wrong?

      • Frances , you aren’t shining a light on anything when you presuppose that any business relationship means that I am not entitled to a personal opinion, or typify my reactions or motives as you have in numerous places. Further your unwarranted and unsubstantiated attacks on the relevancy of the e-PRO course (which has nothing to do with this entire matter) shine no light on anything either.

        I have been in the real estate business for 40 years. I have been a member of NAR for 35 years. I have been active in Volunteer leadership on local state and national levels for 33 years, and have operated several successful businesses over the past 28 years. I don’t make sweeping statements or generalizations or impute motives to others. I do not engage in ad hominem attacks on others and I spend a lot of my personal time working to improve the real estate industry – that may be why my opinion carries some weight and authority. My place in the industry has been earned – it is not the result of one business arrangement. Any implication that it is is simply inaccurate.

        I make very clear when I speak as an individual and when I speak as a representative of any organization – and I have spoken though out this entire tumult as an individual though you chose to vilify me as if I were a corporate spokesperson.

        I’m still speaking as an individual . I don’t pick fights. I don’t like fights. But I don’t run away from fights because I don’t worry about bullies. Bullies prey on the weak or helpless. I’m neither.

        There is nowhere here that I have not acted responsibly. Your statements imply that I have. Other than your perception that my position in the industry prohibits me from forming or expressing an opinion, what do you specifically think I have done that was irresponsible? Please avoid pulling statements out of context in your response if you wish to make one.

      • Ad homininem attacks?

        OMG. This is RICH! Another trainer for CB in Columbus was encouraging people to call Lones’ office an harrass her. He is a TRAINER for god sakes.

        I won’t let you guys twist the situation. It will be what it is.

        The attacked and chewed up and spit out Lones and her biz reputation like it was a day in the sun. No one mentioned “ad hominem attacks” or cared about doing the right thing when it came to her. They all got up in the biz or the lawsuit and made opinions that **may have been** based on incomplete or wrong info. Those opinions led to hateful and unprofessional mutilation and harrassment of Denise Lones and her business and reputation

        You have a duty as a social media guru/rockstar/trainer to teach and show people the right way. YOU DID NONE OF THAT. You let that awful display (and lent your status)of whatever that attack/mutilation was go on far longer than any intelligent, rational person in your position should. It was wrong. That is not only MY personal opinion—many, many people have emailed me thanking me for being a voice of reason in this debate. I’m not taking sides in the lawsuit—I’m taking a STAND against atrocious behaviour whether you, Rob H likes it or NOT.

        I’m sorry. You are looking to have your cake and eat it too.

        It’s IS called BUNK.

  15. Rob: great post – (of course any post is great when I agree with it) Thank you for pointing out that I have the right to my personal opinions which have nothing to do with NAR.

    Kevin I like you as well. Please don;t think that my actions are motivated by any desire to follow any crowd or mob. I had and have my own opinions of the entire matter. I don’t have to tow any company line. Nor did I do or say anything to hurt Denise Lones or damage her reputation. Please stop acting as if I did.

  16. Well written blog, emphasis on the word “blog”. The Zebra bullying debate has been a lesson in social media chaos, where opinion is confused with fact. Very little I see today in social media is factual only speculative and emotional hence the reason it is called social.

    Now to the most valid part of your opinion/blog. Why the heck are we not addressing the unethical agents in the real estate profession? Brokers and other agents are complacent with questionable agent actions. Why? one more agent, one more dollar…. No wonder we do not have a lot of respect in the business world.

  17. I have watched the reaction to this situation and feel that both the actions of the Lones Group and the reactions by some of the supporters of Daniel have exhibited behavior that might be construed as bullyish.

    2 wrongs don’t make a right.

    I think this was both embarrassing and educational opportunity for us all in real estate.

  18. Have you seen Denise Lones 24 minute video about this? In it she urges “a national task force on cyber-harrasment within the real estate industry.” So I assume she is saying that NAR should take this on… but if there is no such thing as cyber-harassment, because we are all adults, why would the real estate industry or NAR need a task force?

  19. Thank you, Rob. Facts always make for a strong case. Arguments based on inference, innuendo, vague reference, irrelevance, and childish name calling tend to diminish the credibility of those who spew them. And attempts to engage in reasonable discussion, as this stream demonstrates, results in more of the same. Keep doing what you do. Hold a mirror up to the industry and keep challenging.

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