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The critic of the future? Not on Twitter. Not on Yelp. On-demand on your cell phone.

20 comments

The question is how we’re going to make our buying decisions (including wine) in the future, when (supposedly) the influence of super-experts will wane in favor of peer recommendations. The conventional wisdom — at least, as expressed by social media advocates and the people who are paid to promote them — is that social media will replace critics in a huge democratization of everything, in which everybody becomes a critic, all the time. The most obvious platform for such a revolution, it is said, is Twitter.

But wait. Is it really? Twitter’s limit (twimit?) is too much democracy too fast. Twitter is as if the ocean were funneled into your kitchen sink, one drop at a time through the faucet, until your entire house is 300 feet underwater. There is no unanimity of opinion (the way there is when a handful of critics raves about a movie). There is no continuity (because what was just expressed is washed away in micro-seconds by what is being said now, and now). There is no time to digest information that arrives in breakneck fashion. Moreover, the information that is incoming does not coincide with the timing of when you need that information in order to make a decision. It is, rather, like not having a hammer when there is a nail you wish to drive in or, conversely, like inconveniently being given a hammer when you neither need nor want one.

It’s for these reasons that I have expressed doubts about the potential of Twitter to transform (twansform?) our consumer culture. But don’t think that the Luddite in me believes that the Internet is incapable of such radical transformation. There is one such technology that shows the potential of driving sales as radically as any social media devotee could ever wish for, and that is Yelp.

What is Yelp? “A web-based community which allows users to share the experiences they’ve had world-wide,” in the words of this slideshow, although “world-wide” exaggerates Yelp’s real focus, which is city-wide (or local). If you’re on a business trip to Duluth and are looking for Thai food, Twitter isn’t likely to help (“the information that is incoming does not necessarily coincide with the timing of when you need that information”) but Yelp can. Yelp can steer you to “businesses within walking distance” no matter where or when you are, which is why Google is in discussions to buy it, according to last Saturday’s New York Times.

Is Yelp “social media”? By the widest definition, certainly. It started in San Francisco as an email recommendation service, so its peer-to-peer nature made it “social” while its email platform made it “media.” Today, of course, Yelp operates out of numerous U.S. cities, and you can browse by 22 categories (nightlife, religious organizations, beauty and spas), of which “wine” is not one; but the search engine lets you find reccos for wine bars, wineries, wine stores, wine clubs and the like, each of them accompanied by user comments that range from snarky to complimentary.

Still, when it comes to wine, there’s one thing Yelp doesn’t yet offer and probably never will, and that’s to give shoppers an overwhelmingly persuasive reason to buy one particular bottle over all the others. Even if Yelp enabled users to sound off on wine, all it would become is another, well, Twitter: a cacophony of dissonant opinion, with Johnny praising that Sauvignon Blanc while Susie accuses it of smelling like cat piss. Then too, Yelp’s revenue stream, which “lets businesses sponsor their search results” thus allowing them “to pay Yelp to display themselves higher on searches,” makes its objectivity suspect, no less so than Zagat’s reccos are similarly suspect (because the restaurant owner’s extended family and employees can say the most glowing things). So there’s no reason for a savvy shopper to believe anything qualitative or subjective on Yelp. He might find directions to that Thai restaurant in Duluth, but it could be the worst meal he ever had.

So what will replace the critics? You’re back in Duluth. You’ve opted out of the Thai restaurant, preferring instead to spring for French (you’re on a per diem from your company). Yelp leads you to Au Contraire, which boasts the town’s best Provençal. You pick up the wine list. It’s indecipherable; you barely recognize the appellations, much less the chateaux. You could ask the sommelier but, this being Duluth, Au Contraire doesn’t have one, just a waitron of doubtful apprehension. Fortunately, there is a solution. You take your iPhone, to which you’ve downloaded wine recommendation apps. (There are several, including the Wine Enthusiast Guide, which has sold 85,000 copies in the last 12 months). Suddenly you feel on surer footing; you no longer have to guess. You have highest of high-tech mobile platforms to make an informed wine-buying decision — where you are, when you need it, from a source you trust. The Death of Print? We can argue about that, but not, obviously, about the death of the critic, who lives on to give advice, with a digital voice over your cell phone.

  1. rottengrapes.com, anyone?

  2. Carlos Toledo says:

    This is a great topic, extremely important and the space is rather short for theories and theses that really deserve a great amount of reasoning. I’ll digest this for a few days. Lest my ideas turn out to be too stupid i won’t post them here, though.

    Before i dismiss self, i’d like to share my agreement with the overall idea put here. Great stuff, much better than those countless wine reviews i have to read e-ve-ry day…..

  3. Hi Steve-
    Your description of Twitter as “if the ocean were funneled into your kitchen sink, one drop at a time through the faucet, until your entire house is 300 feet underwater” is priceless and spot-on!

  4. “…in which everybody becomes a critic, all the time”. Wow that is a scary thought, a world comprised of 100% critics.

  5. Hi Steve,

    Such a relevant post, and I would like to add some flavors using this comment.

    Yelp, and many other websites or online / mobile applications may influence buyer’s decisions but not determinate it, because all depends on who is using and how the functionality is being used. As an example, Twitter API (architecture) is open so developers can create many features over it. While I am writing this comment many apps offering geographic organization of tweets are maturing or going online soon such as Chirpcity (http://chirpcity.com) or Outside in (http://outside.in). In other words, if the person is a wine newbie, it can be influenced and that’s an business opportunity.

    In other view, you can use your twitter profile as an Instant Messaging service or a information hub. It’s up to you the way you will track.

    I believe it is a matter of time. Time needed for the developers to achieve good results on their applications objectives and also time for the wine enthusiasts to develop their knowledge about wine and consider – or not – a critic review or the results of a query (while using an iPhone apps) to determinate his decision.

    If we see the Internet as a means and not an end, as expected, it will depend on how it is used.

    Saúde,
    Alain

  6. Hi Steve,

    Forget about it.

    I read my comment carefully. Besides my lousy english, It’s a long comment. Feel free to erase it, we can talk about it later.

    All the best and happy holidays,
    Alain

  7. Mais non, cher Alain, je suis heureux a poster votre comment! Thank you for writing in.

  8. Carlos Toledo says:

    Steve, the poor guy (Alain) cheered you in an ancient tongue named ”portuguese”, language still used in parts of Toronto and Australia…. Even George Costanza knew how to speak the damn thing!

  9. Oh well at least I had the right continent!

  10. My trusty stead enjoys a porron of tempranillo in the evenings, he gets tweets all day telling him to try this or try that, and pretty soon he is all confused and just asks me to pick a good wine for him. I do and we have good times.

    Have you ever tweeted with hoofs, it is a keyboard issue. And for that matter modulating a porron stream is not easy with four legs and no thumbs too … That stead will hoof to nye and back and narry a tweet of discontent. Perhaps his olfactory is better than mine and the tempranillo more rewarding than I can conceive.

    I am certain the landscape of fine wine will continue to undulate with tweets and tempranillo ebbing and flowing but always ready to be rediscovered and mixed with 7-up for a killer cooler … but I digress.

    Merry Christmas

  11. Jim, I have no idea what you’re talking about, but whatever. Merry Christmas to you.

  12. You people do not even speak or write in english anymore…..Earth to Steve and the rest of you geeked out liberals.

    TF

  13. I certainly agree with you about the importance of the cell phone both for info mining and, though you didn’t mention it, for transactions (mCommerce). Smart phones, particularly of course the iPhone, can even scan barcodes and then provide comparative prices as well as ratings.

    As for critics, this thread would be deficient if a related thread weren’t cited. Admitedly, most of the folks who read your blog also catch Dr. Vino’s scribblings. Here one can vote and read the two sets of comments on “wine person of the decade”. Having nominated Eric LeVine/CellarTracker I’m pleased to see the affirmation, leaving the lone critic, celebrity or not, in the dust.

    I envision a day when those in Deluth or Peoria can access the CT site via their cellphone and find out what savvy wine consumers think of various new (and older) releases. Though you couldn’t bring yourself to mention CT, you are right that neither Yelp nor Twitter can provide a suitable assessment…for now.

  14. Steve,
    In this case you’re right: wine phone apps are a supeior source of information than the sommelier (more likely just a waiter) in Duluth. Some wine apps have a cost (e.g., WE, etc.) and some are free (e.g., HelloVino, etc.) Don’t forget that consumers can also access the internet on their phones, which allows access to souces of public reviews (e.g., CT!, etc.) And the time will come (sooner rathe than later I hope) that custom apps for these public reviews will be available rather than just the standard webpage.

  15. Larry Chandler says:

    If a restaurant has 5 selections on its list, it’s not likely any of them will be great wines. If it has 50, who is going to take the time to look up all 50 on their cell phone?

    It would be nice to access cellar tracker if you are totally lost in a wine shop or restaurant. But if these establishments see what you and everyone else are doing, they will work towards a solution that will get people out faster.

  16. Dear Steve,

    I gather we’ll see more wine related iPhone Apps down the road, but don’t forget about the San Francisco based Nirvino.com. They cover the gamut beyond wine to include cocktails, beer, tea and coffee. Power to the community!

    Neil

  17. Steve,

    I’ll be in Duluth supporting my wholesaler in February and will definitely visit Au Contraire. Thanks for the recommendation and I will surely Yelp about it.

    I’m a Yelper. One of my problems with it is there is not a very good filter for customers with a grudge. One example is a positive Yelp about a restaurant I posted and unsolicited, out of nowhere, another Yelper sends me a nasty-gram because she doesn’t like the owner. Sure enough, she ripped them in Yelp, most likely out of a personal matter, not a food quality, service or business matter.

  18. I sometimes use yelp for restaurants in the Bay Area but I’m more likely to turn to Michael Bauer (critic for the SF Chronicle) or to my own friends for reccos.

  19. Steve, Your observations are spot on if you stay within a very narrow track of how we use these technologies today but it’s hard for me not to look back and point out that the same thing that you are saying about twitter was said about web content just a few years ago. “It’s all crap and will never compete with traditional media”
    uh, whoops

    But you are right that twitter content is not likely to be as useful as CellarTracker on your phone anytime soon but I could easily DM at least three wine geeks that I am connected to in Duluth via twitter for a personal recommendation in real time.

    Would I rather sift through yelp on my phone, or get a recommendation?

    Cheers,
    Alan

  20. Steve,

    While I enjoy your style, I’m afraid that your comments reflect you being a bit like the fabled boy with his finger in the dyke. In reality, people are not going to see what the ‘Siskel & Eberts’ of the world are recommending, but are rather going to sites like rottentomatoes.com or getting feedback from people through those dreaded tools like twitter or facebook. Similarly, people use peer reviews on numerous sites as guides on buying any number of products. Assuming that those prevailing winds will not impact the world of wine, is tantamount to sticking your head in the sand.

    Having said that, I do concur with you that there are numerous snake oil salesmen ‘selling’ their views of the future that harken back to the dot-com era. Today as then, keeping your finger on the pulse of where things are trending are generally more effective than buying into some utopian theory.

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