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Food and Loathing

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.

8 Comments on “Food and Loathing”

  1. #1 Seth Finkelstein
    on Mar 25th, 2007 at 3:33 pm

    Dan, what evidence do you have that you are right? That is, the difference between “ought” and “is”. There is a vast gap between the ideas:

    1) Anonymous comments should have little or no credence.

    2) Anonymous comments do have little or no credence.

    Perhaps anonymous comments have a significant effect even though they should not. So maybe the reporter is correct in the sense that the statement describes how the world is, not how it should be.

    And you should know the likely response to asking people to use their real names: “Why does it matter? Are you trying to make trouble for me? ANONYMITY IS MY RIGHT!!! The Federalist Papers were published anonymously, long live the revolution. You fascist, your political understanding is as bad your food. etc. etc.”

    [Not that this is meaningful. It’s just what would probably happen.]

  2. #2 Nelson Minar
    on Mar 26th, 2007 at 7:48 am

    Yep, that article was terrible. Even worse, it was published as the top item on the front page of the Sunday newspaper. Apparantly the SF Chron editors think “people have opinions about restaurants” is breaking news. The front page of the local news section now features a banner ad on the bottom of the page. Sad times for the Examiner/Chronicle.

  3. #3 Delia
    on Mar 26th, 2007 at 10:00 am

    Dan, as I already said I find your take on anonymous posts and the inferences you draw from peoples *choice* to remain anonymous extreme — *What* people are saying (whether they chose to remain anonymous or not) and what *evidence* they give for what they are saying is what matters to me… Much more than *who* said so. Unless they are “experts in the field” (and even then they would have to have adequate evidence for what they are saying), who cares if their name is Joe Dow or Mary Smith?


  4. #4 Dan Gillmor
    on Mar 26th, 2007 at 11:32 am

    I care, because someone who doesn’t use a real name gives me less than no reason to trust what’s being said.

  5. #5 Delia
    on Mar 26th, 2007 at 1:32 pm

    Well… you seem to have an odd hang-up on the need to give one’s actual name in *such circumstances* (now if you met someone in person and they gave you some made up name, yeah… you’d have no good reason to trust them) but on some board online? there is really no need or use for their actual names; besides, how would you know it was their real name anyways? Especially if it’s a common name… D.

  6. #6 Dan Gillmor
    on Mar 27th, 2007 at 1:57 am

    You don’t know for sure. I think of it as an invitation to do the right thing, not a guarantee that people won’t cheat. I’d rather encourage good behavior than ignore the issue.

  7. #7 Delia
    on Mar 27th, 2007 at 6:22 pm

    I don’t see any issue with people choosing to remain anonymous in such circumstances — it seems to me that they just value their privacy (hard to hold it against them). IF it is done *to deceive*… of course that’s wrong but the intent to deceive is what makes it wrong, not their desire to preserve their privacy. Well… as far as *I* see it… D.

  8. #8 Periodismo Ciudadano
    on Mar 30th, 2007 at 2:16 am

    […] artículo ha propiciado la reacción de Dan Gilmor (Center for Citizen Media) quien se despacha a gusto en una entrada que titula “Comida y […]