Saturday, November 22, 2014

Too Many Opinions

More than once in the past few weeks, I have turned to the Net to help me make a choice about something. Ten or fifteen years ago I might have asked around or consulted a travel guide or asked a friend. No more. Now I do the same thing as any of you: I punch up Yelp or Google or Amazon reviews, and quickly troll the comments left by others.  

The idea behind these reviews is simple: give voice to the people. Instead of experts anointed by some editor or a panel of professionals, ordinary you's-and-me's would be able to weigh in, and post their opinion unfettered by anything other than their own personal experience. For this, I would be the wiser. My decisions could be crowd sourced, culling out the experiences that I wanted to have, and equally important, those I wished to avoid. It was supposed to make it easier, better. And it was supposed to work whether the choice in question was a new phone, a bottle of wine or a beach on which to lay. Instead, now I don't know which way to turn.

It's not that there are too few reviews; there are simply too many. For every negative there is a positive. For every rave there is a pan. For every, "this was the best movie I ever saw" there is a "don't waste your money on this piece of crap!" And the problem is this: they are all right.

That's because in almost every case they're based on a singular experience. And there are two truths about any encounter anywhere, anytime. The first is that no matter how hard a supplier might try, things can sometimes go wrong. And the second is that bad news is at least as interesting as good.  So you get plenty of posts about good guacamole, but equally as many that says someone found half a cockroach in their burrito. The result is that everything becomes a schizoid nightmare.

Take my own situation. I was going into the city for a project which didn't look to end till 1AM. That was paired with another that required a 7AM startup time the next morning. As such, I decided it would be more prudent to get a hotel room for the night than drive back and forth. Knowing the market in New York can get pricey, and needing just a clean place to catch a few hours of shut-eye followed by a hot shower, I started scanning sites for a modest layover. I figured somewhere between a $500+ room at the Waldorf and a $69 shared bathroom at a Bowery SRO I had to be able to find something acceptable.

Options themselves were not an issue; there are literally hundreds within 5 miles of midtown. Restricting myself to Manhattan, I looked further out to the edges than the center, assuming the cost would be cheaper. And indeed it was. But as soon as I clicked on a place, up popped a review: "Very nice, nice location, friendly staff. But it was paired with "Worse experience I ever had: small, cramped, rude." OK, maybe another. "The room is very small, but nicely kept. " Sounds good, until you read the next: "The quality of everything is bad already, but to have mice roaming around?" Getting to the client early and sleeping in the reception area was starting to seem like a reasonable possibility.  

And it's no different if you look at restaurant reviews. Punch up any random place. First rating: "Really enjoyed the curry." Second one: "Crappy service, ugly place, terrible food." Or book reviews. "This is a subtle and evocative story" is paired with "This book was clearly written for the money." Or dance music: "The best thing out of Austria since Mozart" vs. "Did someone leave the synthesizer running and go to the loo?"  

Garrison Keller famously starts each edition of his "News From Lake Wobegon" by noting that it's a place where "all the men are strong, all the women are good looking and all the children above average." Were you to journey to that fictional place, you know what you'll find when you get there. But if Expedia took you there? It would be matched with "Residents are weak, homely and stupid: find another place to live."


Marc Wollin of Bedford picks restaurants based on proximity to parking. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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