Friday, August 05, 2011

Wired has an interesting article about the possibly pernicious ubiquity of anonymous reviewers. Hilariously, all I could think of was to review the article, though as author Chris Collin points out, I could also like it on Facebook or tweet about it. Every one's a critic, and we are all just generating content. We can even review reviews, for crying out loud. Here I am, generating content. But what is doing to us to be in this kind of echo chamber full-time?

As Mr. Colin notes, "There’s an essential freedom in being alone with one’s thoughts, oblivious to and unpolluted by anyone else’s.", but in what he dubs the "Yelpification of the universe" that luxury is harder to find.

I must admit a guilty pleasure in reading reviews. Especially as the majority of people who review anything (be it a hairbrush, a taqueria, or a gastroenterologist) have an overwhelmingly positive or intensely negative experience. Few write paragraph after paragraph about how something was more or less okay. Only the highs and lows take the time to comment. The review world is skewed towards the extremes and I figure that reality lies somewhere between the person who deems something a salvation and another who sees it as a waste of time.

But Yelp is a subset of its own. Zagat's has the anonymity of the eerily unattributed quotation marks. (Who said it was "an affordable bistro"? Zagat isn't telling.) I began consulting Yelp back in 2007 when it was somewhat less trafficked and a bit more local. There was a some self-congratulatory rhetoric about being an insider which was tiresome, but it didn't have the unpalatable smugness of boors that permeates it now. Perhaps it's the demographics of my city that have changed and continue to change. I don't know what happened, but now whenever I scroll down for a review or two of a local eatery or podiatrist, I am absolutely floored by the entitlement espoused by young persons, some of whom by their own admission, hail from more placid regions of the nation and have only been in town a short while. I have read reviews that amount to little more than assassinations of character against poor defenseless sandwich shops because they felt their waiter was a bit distracted. People who would give their lunch a negative star rating if possible. People so appalled and dismayed by the quality of a cup of coffee that they resort to moments of ALL CAPS. These are the Yelp Princesses. Men and women with such high standards that nothing could please them. The music is too loud, too soft, not the kind they liked. The decor too trendy, not trendy enough, too brightly lit, too recently rennovated, not renovated enough. The waitstaff is too elusive, or has bad vibes. You get the idea. Nothing will suit these goldilocksing Yelp Princesses.

But my favorite complaint is that the food is just not authentic enough. Not authentic enough, cry the Yelp Princesses, who freely admit that they've never visited the culinary region in question. Perhaps they've never even met a person from the country in question, except maybe the distracted waiter. (A local Egyptian eatery was deemed inauthentic by Yelp Princesses, not to mention dirty. Akhenaten confirmed that the food was authentic, and the dirt doubly so.) Whenever I read a particularly negative review, I enjoy checking other reviews by the same person to see what else they hate. This is how I discovered that there are lots of folks out there who prefer the predictability of chain restaurants to the crap shoot of a mom- and-pop. There are Yelp Princesses out there who are terrified of every little thing. A Yelp Princess wrote in horror about people hawking cans of beer and bottled water out of garbage bags filled with ice up and down Brighton Beach. The Yelp Princess wrote disparagingly, "it was so ghetto". I just thought, great, now I don't have to bring water. Plus that is a very tough job hauling the bags around on the hot sand, and has this particular Yelp Princess ever even been near a "ghetto"? Sometimes I can be sure of liking something if the Yelp Princesses hate it.

Sometimes a customer review can do a lot of damage to a small business. A small business whose greatest crime was a waitress who forgot to bring an extra soda and the Yelp Princess had to ask twice. I've seen businesses respond and attempt to mollify customers, even when the customers have unreasonable demands. I've got news for you, Yelp Princesses, every lunch you eat will not be a culinary masterpiece. Expensive and popular eateries have off-nights. Spending 4 days at a resort in Cancun does not make you an expert in Mexican food. Life, in short, is full of little disappointments. And even if you go to the right schools and the right restaurants, you can still have a crapola of an evening. And that's all it is: an evening. Or a meal, a day at the beach. If these are the greatest injustices you suffer, Yelp Princess, you should really think about how your privilege has shielded you from the realities of life.

And I a bit harsh on recent emigres to NYC? Yes. Absolutely. No one comes here for the relaxing environment. It is a hard adjustment to make. The standard of living is lower than the rest of the country. But don't take your culture shock out on small businesses.

I know I'm an old crank having a George Carlin moment. There are many young people out there who are perfectly lovely. And there are adventurous souls who come to town to make their way in the world and I wish them luck. There are young people, and people of all ages in fact, who are committed to social justice, renewable resources. People who have devoted themselves to better and grander things than I, certainly. Perhaps, dare I admit it, complaining about Yelp Princesses smacks of Yelp Princessness itself. In a culture where every one's a critic, don't we all just sound like self-important jerks? Perhaps this constant parading of our consumer opinions is inherently vulgar. The need to comment, to have the last word, to be an insider, to determine what is authentic, is perhaps the magic land in which we all become insufferable.

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Blogger Lizzie, The Vintage Traveler said...

You positively nailed this.

I've been bothered by online reviews for sometime now, after reading some of the horrible things people posted about my very favorite hotel. The very things that make the place charming and different are the very thing people choose to bitch about. Astounding.

5:50 PM  
Blogger samsara said...

Dear Lizzie,

So nice to see you here! And thank you for your succinct and insightful comment.

I try to counter negative reviews of places I like with positive ones, but that can turn into a full-time job.

8:53 AM  

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