Life Eat & Drink Why I will never trust Urbanspoon

Why I will never trust Urbanspoon

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I’m one of those people who never fails to take a photo of their food. Granted, I’m often paid to do it, but I’d whip out the iPhone and hover awkwardly above the plate even if I wasn’t. Though it efficiently horrifies my wife and immediately paints me as a tourist, I persist in documenting something all of us do at least a couple of times a day.

And it’s totally reasonable: Good cuisine, whether silver service or cheap ‘n’ cheerful, is never a mundane topic. Sure, 98 per cent of the descriptions of food on Twitter are simply ramblings about people’s lunch, but I like lunch. I especially like lunch when it’s made by creative and highly-trained professionals — so the fact that social media is a natural extension of sharing meals is perfectly understandable.

But even if I mash the little ‘♡’ button on every single Instagram shot of your 12-dish barbecue odyssey, I can’t bring myself to accept your Urbanspoon (or Yelp, or Google+, or especially your TripAdvisor) recommendation.

Criticisms like ‘didn’t have enough foods on it’ are right up there with ‘not enough explosions’ and should be disregarded entirely.

The idea, I suppose, is that the wisdom of the crowd will accurately determine which restaurant in your proximity really is best. But, as long experience has demonstrated, crowds generally like terrible things.

Take, for example, film reviews: According to users of ubiquitous film database, IMDB, the best movie last year was Man of Steel. I saw Man of Steel. To say it was the year’s best piece of cinema is like saying the return of the McOz was the culinary event of 2013 (hint: it wasn’t).

The same kind of dubious recommendations besiege user-review food sites. Is Shanghai Street Dumpling (89 percent off 1694 votes on Urbanspoon) really better than Golden Fields (85 percent off 1214 votes)? Is Yelp actually right when it claims the single best restaurant in Sydney is chain dumpling joint, Din Tai Fung? Sorry, voters: Nope.

Sure, it might be unfair of me to compare the popularity of a $10-a-dish takeaway with a $15-a-dumpling fine diner — but that’s kinda the point. The subtle relationships between price, quality and the power of nostalgia aren’t adequately represented by a rating out of five. And frankly, criticisms like ‘didn’t have enough foods on it’ are right up there with ‘not enough explosions’ and should be disregarded entirely.

Though my scepticism is partly a function of the fact that I’m a snob, there are some slightly more malign forces working to misshape user-review ratings, like, er, money. A recent study out of the University of California found that an improvement in ratings by just half a star caused restaurants to fill their reservations almost 20 percent more often — even when quality and value remain unchanged. Obviously, there’s a massive financial incentive to have a great Urbanspoon rating, and we all know what comes with massive financial incentives…

Dedicated ‘reputation management’ firms out of Bangladesh, the Philippines and Eastern Europe all offer fake review services for restaurants with ailing prestige, creating hundreds of dummy user profiles and using sophisticated techniques to hide their IPs from sites. New York coppers even set up a sham yoghurt shop in a kind of American Hustle style sting (were we talking about movie of the year…?).

Meanwhile, crowdsourced reviews can also have the opposite effect, unfairly destroying upstanding businesses through defamatory bile. Last year, for example, the Guardian reported that one UK business lost 80 percent of his customers when someone (falsely) called him a thief and a paedophile on Google+. Anonymity really brings out the best in people, doesn’t it? We know exactly how much of a big man BigMan69 can be when he isn’t inconvenienced by having to say it to your face.

But, it’s undeniable that there are fine writers with discerning taste who’re putting thumbs to the phone to craft user reviews. Inevitably, they’re the people I seek out whenever I ramble into Urbanspoon, borderline hangry: Reviewers who appear to share my taste or explain their own; who fairly evaluate a restaurant’s qualities or deficiencies; someone who can convey their unique voice via their writing; and can spell/are subbed (I did say I was a snob). People with idiosyncratic points of view, but views that I trust. Basically, I’m after a food reviewer. Someone who eats, cooks, writes and thinks about food for their job.

It may be deeply unpopular to say so, but I don’t trust in the masses’ wisdom; particularly when it’s assigning numerical values to subjective personal experiences like dining. Too often social media becomes an echo chamber that encourages users to seek out ideas they already agree with. The fact that sites like Urbanspoon, Yelp and TripAdvisor are so vulnerable to being hijacked by vested interests, frauds and trolls is even more troubling. It’s not a question of new media vs old, rather, it’s about voices you trust — which is where the curatorial eye of a good editor is invaluable. It won’t stop me from Gramin’ my lunch; it just won’t have been chosen by the crowd.

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