SF Chronicle: Food bloggers dish up plates of spicy criticism / Formerly formal discipline of reviewing becomes a free-for-all for online amateurs: Just days after opening Senses, his San Francisco bistro, Teo Kridech clicked onto the World Wide Web only to find that his dream business was considered an overnight flop.
“Senses is like a botched face lift covered with layers of poorly applied cheap make-up on a hot humid day in Biloxi, Miss.,” one poster wrote on the Web site Yelp.
The restaurant owner in question tells the paper that the posts “nearly killed my business” — a statement that is impossible to prove (and which raises strong doubts in my mind). But it’s a heck of an anecdote for the newspaper to hang a story on.
Too bad the reporters didn’t do a bit more homework. The following paragraph — what journalists call the “nut graf,” or the essential kernel of the piece — is especially problematic:
If you think restaurant critics from mainstream newspapers, television and magazines are tough on the food industry, you haven’t spent much time in cyberspace. Online message boards, gossip columns, city restaurant guides and food blogs are proliferating and having a profound influence on where consumers spend their eating dollars. The once-genteel discipline of restaurant reviewing has turned into a free-for-all, celebrated by some as a new-world democracy but seen by others as populist tyranny.
When they lump all blogging and message boards and the other activities together, they undermine their thesis, part of which is absolutely correct.
The difference between an anonymous (actually pseudonymous) comment posting and a blog post by someone who stands behind his or her own words could not be much greater. The former deserves little or no credence — I assign anonymous comments negative credibility in my own reading. Whether the latter has credibility, at least from my perspective, depends on whether it’s earned some of my trust.
Sites like Yelp are inherently untrustworthy when it comes to individual postings. They gain a bit of credibility when the weight of the comments runs strongly in one direction or another — though not all that much, because of the anonymity and, one suspects, the way comment-driven sites may be gamed by determined nay-sayers or people who try to artificially pump up an establishment’s rating with the equivalent of spam.
Contrast the anonymous comment with the work of a blogger who reports relentlessly on a topic about which he or she cares deeply. I’ve started reading several food bloggers in the San Francisco Bay area whose work strikes me as at least interesting as any professional restaurant critics.
If I owned a restaurant, however, I’d read the comments avidly and participate in the conversation no matter how annoying I found it; the option is ostrich-like. I’d be putting in the comments my responses to the negative comments, and I’d keep asking people to use their real names, and ask them why they won’t stand behind their words.