Commentary: Crowdsourcing craziness

So, let’s talk about Yelp.*

The popular site is crowdsourcing the business of food reviews, and like so many other media jobs, the debate has arisen over just what happens when you take the professionals out of the equation and let people just give one other their opinions directly online.

You see, Yelp* has a little problem, in that it is a disaster. Not the fun kind of disaster, the kind that apparently makes for a good tumblr feed to observe. There was a furor a few years ago when restaurants accused the site of manipulating reviews for pay, and that’s before you get to the fact that anonymous reviewers can post bad reviews of places that aren’t even open yet. Graham Elliot (everybody’s favorite MasterChef critic) complains Yelp* lets people post things that are just factually wrong, darn it. The site has clamped down on some of these criticisms, but the fundamental flaw in the site’s model remains.**

You see, the problem I have with Yelp* is it fundamentally does not leave room for credibility in its reviews. Writers come from all walks of life, some critical, some not so much. Some have a bone to pick with one business, others are trying to underhandedly get good PR for their own restaurants. The source and motivation of praise and criticism on the site remains unclear. It’s not just me worrying about these things, chefs face those frustrations, as well. Entrusting reviews to anyone who wants to make them seems like a good idea…if they had the critical thinking skills to neutrally and accurately level legitimate critical thought at a restaurant, and the writing skills to communicate those criticisms.

Instead, Yelpers can be a temperamental bunch, complaining about other customers and their personal lives and rambling on about things entirely out of a restaurant’s control. Those kinds of comments are neither constructive to a restaurant nor helpful to a prospective customer. To be a food critic, you need more than an opinion. You need to establish a little bit about who you are and why your thoughts are significant to a readership. It’s not just about having fun, there’s real work to be done here. When people look at a restaurant review, they don’t care about your work life. No one cares about your impressionist attempts at creative writing. Just talk about the restaurant. Very few Yelp reviews have meaningful things to say, most distracted by stories about how cute their kids are while contending the food is “good” or some other vague attribute.

Before you yell at me, I submit to the fact I am a food writer with only a few years in the restaurant industry under my belt. I’m not trying to say this site has more credibility than that one does. What I’m saying is you can judge my work for yourself.  This site is readily open to feedback, and it often receives just that. Some of my readers have politely suggested I reconsider a review based on different dishes, while others have just disagreed with me. Occasionally, I do manage to get a restaurant owner on here to respond to my review, and I love that. Never have I edited or deleted feedback on this blog.

That’s transparency all food criticism needs. That’s the fundamental element I find lacking in Yelp.*

*I know it’s called “Yelp!” but I didn’t want you to think I was unnecessarily excited.

**Now, let’s be honest. Another Food Critic used to be on Yelp.* We had a falling out, I’m afraid, but I still use it to locate some of the harder to find restaurants around the state. I considered expanding my presence there, but it was not in my best interest. I hope my argument proves that fact irrelevant to the discussion.

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