March 1 1998 by Joe Queenan
One rainy afternoon in October 1996, commercial real-estate salesman Paul Merlin stopped off at a typically blue-collar New York City diner for a bagel with cream cheese and a cup of coffee. When Merlin bit into what proved to be a very tough bagel, one of his front teeth came loose. Merlin immediately complained to the waiter, who offered to bring him another bagel.
That wasn’t enough to satisfy Merlin, who thundered off to his lawyer’s office and sued the bagel maker for criminal negligence. Just before New Year’s, Merlin’s suit was dismissed by a New York court, which cited the caveat emptor rule governing all domestic bagel-related transactions. The court was also swayed in its opinion by dental records supplied by the defendant proving that Merlin had a severe overbite.
Infuriated by these developments, Merlin did what an increasing number of angry consumers are doing these days: He set up his own chat room to mercilessly pillory the bagel industry. At www.bagel.chat, thousands of computer owners who have had unsatisfactory experiences with the bagel industry can trade horror stories, issue warnings about eateries known to serve hard bagels, and just generally ‘<vetch about their misfortunes.
“When I first opened the site, I thought I was the only American who had ever sued the bagel industry,” explains Merlin. “But now, after hundreds of hours on-line, I realize that there are whole battalions of us out there. And believe you me, we aim to bring the bagel industry to its knees.”
In the past year, on-line chat rooms devoted to miffed consumers have begun to spread all over the Internet. In addition to a number of well-known chat rooms devoted to the automotive and computer industries, there are such newcomers as www.bad.bus and www.wheres.the.heat. The former provides a forum for regular bus riders all across the country to complain about substandard service, while the latter is geared toward apartment dwellers living in very cold buildings.
While chat rooms are typically characterized by inane exchanges and regular incursions from sex-crazed teens, these electronic gathering places have nevertheless become so popular and influential that the various industries targeted by them have begun to sit up and take notice.
“When Paul Merlin first set up his chat room for bagel activists, we thought he was just your average nut job,” explains Manny Steinmentz, media coordinator for the North American Bagel Institute. “But then we realized that literally thousands of people visiting his chat room were spreading vicious lies about the bagel industry. That’s when we knew we had to act.”
Among the “lies” Steinmentz has seen disseminated on Merlin’s www.bagel.chat are myths that hard bagels are manufactured under the auspices of the Trilateral Commission; that denture-wrecking bagels are the result of collusion between bagel makers and the American Dental Association; that the arabesques one frequently sees on pumpernickel raisin bagels form a satanic symbol. Www.bagel.chat has also spawned an offshoot called www.militia.bagel.chat, where disgruntled bagel eaters contend that their grim dining experiences are connected in some way with the Knights Templar, the Illuminati, and the longlost Spear of Longinus.
To prevent the proliferation of such mythology, the bagel industry has arranged with Merlin’s Internet service provider to allow an industry-paid “monitor” to “host” the conversations. This monitor has the authority anyone off the system who has been deemed guilty of “hateful bagel speech.” “I admit that we’ve got a few loose cannons on the Web site,” Merlin concedes. “But the fact is, the bagel industry brought this on themselves. If they made a good product that didn’t cause peoples’ teeth to fall out of their mouths when they bit into them, I would have never set up this site.”
Steinmentz wearily admits that the popularity of www.bagel.chat is costing the industry millions of dollars a week, and says that the North American Bagel Institute is considering hiring its nemesis as a high-paid “consultant” if it will induce him to close up shop.
“The thing that puzzles me is why he went after the bagel industry,” says Steinmentz. “After all, it was the goddamn diner that let the bagel go stale. If there was any justice in the world, the Web site would be cal led www.diners.bite.”
Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal.