BERKELEY, Calif. (ANS) — As the number of commercial transactions on the
Internet explodes, so do complaints about poor service, shoddy workmanship
and outright fraud. Resolving these disputes, which often involve people who
have never met one another, is the newest challenge for conflict mediators.
Alternative dispute resolution, which uses mediators rather than the court
system to resolve conflicts, has grown in popularity as people search for
time- and cost-effective solutions to a host of civil disagreements.
As online disputes escalate in number, conflict mediators are not only
spending more time on them but are developing new negotiation strategies
appropriate to “cyber-conflict,” including e-mail, instant messaging and
threaded discussion, experts say.
Hoping to set the gold standard for the profession is the Mediation
Information and Resource Center, which launched the Web site
onlinemediators.com earlier this year. An established Internet-based
mediation community with some 3,000 members, the center in its latest
endeavor will concentrate on business-to-business disputes. But it also
plans to advocate generally for mediation as a way of establishing trust
between online vendors and their customers.
“What we’re really hoping to do is place links to online mediators on any
and every site we can get, as a pledge and indication to the consumer that
these people prefer to mediate,” said John Helie, founder of the center and
the new site. The fees for the center’s service range from $50 to $100 per
hour, based on the dollar value of the work or product in dispute.
Anyone interested in using online mediation can go to the site, fill out a
form detailing their grievance and submit it by e-mail. The center then
contacts the other party. If the other side agrees to mediation, the center
selects one of its members whose expertise matches the dispute. All parties
then communicate with each other by e-mail, instant messaging and even group
discussions until they solve the problem.
“Meeting face to face, the traditional method of mediation, is still an
option but often isn’t essential,” said Colin Rule, general manager of the
site. “With the Internet, you have disputes arising between people who will
never meet. If it’s just about money, online (communication) is probably
Helie agrees and takes it one step further. “Yes, you don’t have the
nonverbal cues, but the face-to-face in most cases is overrated and not
necessary,” he said. “In many cases, the face-to-face gets in the way,”
particularly for people who are uncomfortable with the way they look or are
hesitant to interrupt someone else to state their opinion. For them,
negotiating online is much preferred, he said.
Having time to think is also important, Helie said. In-person mediation
often involves putting two people in a room and pressuring them to come to
an agreement before they’re ready. Working online eliminates that tension,
Not that face-to-face meetings are being ruled out. For clients who wish to
negotiate in person, the center will also provide the names of five
mediators in their geographic area. Those meetings help build rapport among
the parties and the mediator. But exchanging information and negotiating
agreements are best done online, Helie said.
“You can mix and match. An online mediator needs to know when to go face to
face,” he said.
Just as body language matters in negotiation, small details are going to
make a difference online, said Rule. Feedback from clients has already shown
that people prefer polite, formal language rather than the casual
communication and typing shortcuts often associated with the Web.
“Emotions are a big part of the mediation process,” he noted.
The profession is catching on quickly. In addition to the center, numerous
other mediation groups offer their services on cyberspace. The auction house
e-Bay has partnered up with SquareTrade, which helps resolve
misunderstandings among the site’s customers. The Better Business Bureau,
which already accepts complaints online and refers them to local affiliates,
is exploring how to automate consumer disputes that involve international
“The potential is staggering,” said Rule. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the
legal system evolved to encompass the way business is done online, but
that’s decades away. We want to be on the cutting edge.”