The pitfall of social media: the Yelp Conundrum
We all know that Yelp isn’t entirely trustworthy (what, you thought it was?). Any business, product or service that wants great reviews can simply ask all their friends and relatives to weigh in with a good word. Seems you can even outsource glowing reviews from other businesses, in exchange for a little mutual backslapping.
“As many as 4 out of 10 online reviews are phony or biased in some way,” according to a professor cited in the above article. But even though you and I, an educated public, instinctively or objectively know that Yelp reviews may be biased, we listen to them anyway, in a conscious act of self-persuasion, because the concept of “peer reviewing” is so powerful. We figure that, scattered amidst the bias, are golden nuggets of truth.
Peer reviewing, also known as word-of-mouth, always has been a powerful recommender. It’s seemingly the opposite of authority recommending, wherein a specialist or expert (that would be people like me, in the world of wine) tells other people what’s good, what sucks, and everything inbetween. These days, of course, the authority of experts is on the decline, maybe justifiably. The power of peers has seen its ultimate expression on the Internet, and specifically in what’s been dubbed “social media,” wherein you, me, and that gal behind the tree all have equal opportunity to opine, and then publish our opinions to–ta da!–the entire world. The Internet becomes the Great Leveler, diminishing the power of so-called experts, heightening that of novices and ordinary people.
That’s good. Every advancement in publishing technology brings the human race a step upward on the ladder of progress and enlightenment. The invention of movable type helped usher in the Renaissance from the dismal depths of the Dark Ages, when religious superstition dominated Europe and the church controlled publishing, censoring everything that did not conform to doctrine. But just as movable type led to problems (the rise of mass media, for example, which can be owned by corporations with biases), one has to point out the limitations of the Internet.
The problem with this ease of instant universal publishing is precisely what we can now call the Yelp Conundrum: just as you can’t believe everything you read on Yelp, you can’t believe everything you read in social media. More than that: Even if you know that you can’t believe everything you read in social media, you don’t know exactly what’s accurate and what isn’t. It’s sort of like Doublethink, in Orwell’s 1984. Any word can mean whatever the speaker or writer intends it to mean. Dictionaries are constantly in a state of revision to keep up with the shifting meaning of words. The written word, in 1984, no longer has value as a means of the transmission of truth. Instead, it becomes either a form of entertainment, or a mechanism to sell something, whether it be a product or government-sanctioned idea. The only way to really know what the written word means, in 1984, is to understand the context. Unfortunately, in that totalitarian dictatorship, it’s impossible to know the context of anything.
Context is similarly lacking in today’s social media reviews and analyses of wine. Another word for context is transparency. If a claim is transparent, then it cannot be “phony or biased in some way,” as 4 in 10 Yelp reviews are. Or, more correctly: it may be biased, but it is transparently biased, so that the reader is armed with sufficient information to ignore it.
Each form of social media has different ways to game the system. Yelp’s are perhaps the most obvious; but everything can be rigged. Blogs may be corrupted by the “mommy blog” phenomenon whereby the blogger is paid (secretly) to hawk certain products or services. Twitter is entirely capable of being hijacked by special interests, to judge by my feed, which routinely includes tweets by wineries touting their own stuff.
Until it’s possible to know who’s getting what, who’s in whose pocket, who’s simply ignorant, and who’s transmitting whatever message their controllers want them to, social media should be viewed with skepticism by wine consumers seeking truthful information. What is needed is an absolute way for the consumer to know the context of the information he or she receives. What is needed is transparency. But transparency is exactly what seems impossible to confirm on the Internet. The obviously phony emails from Nigerian widows should warn us all to beware the Internet’s pitfalls. But self-persuasion, or self-hypnosis, keeps us believing we can avoid them, ourselves.