The Return to All American Standards (Part Two): Paperback and Online Reviews As A Pack Of Lies (Essay #8)


Published reviewing of restaurants has been a tradition for decades. Though travel guidebooks were the original contenders in this area, others have established effectively also. For example, Zagat guide is a polished book of reviews about regions’ restaurants and has been around prior to the Information Revolution when online reviewing become an alternative to the published sources. Online reviews by visitors to the restaurants are very common and are used as reliable sources for shopping decisions. Today, Zagat is still the most popular paper restaurant guide though the integrity of its reviews can be questioned. Also Zagat works very much in favor of the industry by publishing only positive reviews which appear to be “independent.” Online reviews are also manageable by third parties in the interest of the establishments but are not as much “controlled” as sources such as Zagat can be. Those who own many of the big businesses would love to bypass the online systems, with their system of open public comments, and return to any system with ineffective public involvement. Because the Information Revolution effects are neutralizing today, travel review books, Zagat books and online reviews, which represent restaurant reviewing standards for different eras, that are still in use today, are likely to be subject to ” elite control” as we may be returning to a system of only one standard of “controlled” reviewing system.

In the old days, travel companies went around and checked places to include in their travel books. The travel books did quite well and many companies such as Michelin and Fodor’s have been in business since as a result. Their reviews are objective enough and mostly what is worth mentioning is included. Many aspiring businesses maybe omitted but on the good side if some business is below par, it is also omitted. This gave many businesses, who don’t aspire to be the best, a chance to stay out of the competition game and just be simple businesses. People could run their less than great businesses and not be threatened by high-end reviewers and only those who had the real stuff, were reviewed and they mostly got good reviews. Additionally, the travel guide review books worked well as a system since life did not change much over a period of one year between publications. The accuracy of the information was reasonable from issue to issue. This system was popular for many years though mostly businesses owned by the rich were the prime beneficiaries. It was possible, if not the sole intended, to include select businesses which would get good to great reviews thus controlling the market.

In contrast to the travel books, some companies chose to allow the consumers do the reviewing and the scoring. This system worked similarly though more popular. Only the more successful businesses were included and little harm was done because many ordinary businesses were left out automatically. However, interested businesses could influence reviews and the rich could protect their interests.

Zagat is an example of the kind of book that its reviewers are the general public. Zagat is a restaurant guide pocketbook published annually for many regions of US. Zagat has been in print for over 30 years and the public have grown accustomed to Zagat and its rating system of restaurants. The Zagat reviewers are general public – members of the Zagat.com. They write short reviews and assign scores to restaurants they visit. The reviewers submit the reviews according to Zagat standards and eventually they are tallied up and included in the new edition of Zagat. Zagat does a good job of editing and piecing together the submitted comments. I have always enjoyed reading the Zagat books. Though the descriptions written for the restaurants are fun and interesting to read, the accuracy and the validity of that information and the Zagat scores have become more and more questionable. The problem with this system is the visitor feedback can be managed by a third party. Restaurant PR firms can arrange to feed Zagat.com with favorable reviews. This PR management practice is becoming more commonplace thus the doubts of the readers about accuracy. PR firms can organize outstanding reviewing for their client restaurants knowing how the system works. In other words, it is very easy to “help” Zagat write its reviews. Zagat knows this and the question is do they care? As a business, Zagat is financially solid by its way of doing things. The integrity of their reviewing system maybe jeopardized but they still make very interesting and readable books that sell great. Zagat even helps by having its own seasonal drives for the restaurants to help people write reviews for the restaurants. After all, the integrity of product is not the top priority in American business. Business is the top priority and Zagat is a business. The standards have always been adjusted in America to help the businesses. What is the bottom line for Zagat types because of the industry standard? Each book is getting thicker and thicker every year and the “helped” information has become a big enough part of the review system to make some say Zagat books are packed with interesting lies.

The public reviewer books, such as Zagat, compete in popularity with the travel guide review books but also have much in common. Neither hurts ordinary businesses and both can be influenced by business interests which is great for the rich who own most of the reviewed places. These industry standards have worked well for the interests of American elite since before the Information Revolution. The reviews and the information needed for decision making was provided by those in “control” of information and the acceptable options, for the public, were clearly indicated. Americans conformed to the system and did what they were “told” as is commonly said. Who were they, the American public, to say what restaurant was great or not and where to go, what to buy and so on. They were notified by media (controlled by the rich) and other ordinary people of how to live their lives (the standard.) They followed what they were told. Zagat, travel books and similar guides did a good job by helping “tell” the public and bing flexible enough for those who owned the industry.

The printed review books may have successfully doing “their” job but online reviewing has taken the stronger position since the Information Revolution. The original Internet is now referred to as Web 1.0 which is the basic websites as we have always known them. The Generation Y people experience Internet as Web 2.0 which is the same web pages but people can interact with the information. The public can write comments on the web pages. The public can forward, email, save, bookmark and do many more things to the web pages. These capabilities created new ways of sharing information and reviews of businesses. The reviewers can visit the online review sites and write own reviews about their experiences of a business. This kind of reviewing is new and did not exist prior to the Information Revolution and Web 2.0. Online reviewing also has important differences with the travel book and Zagat-type review books.

Online review sites are very popular with the young people. People aged 18 to 24 are members of Generation Y and together with the younger people of Generation X they have uniquely acquired post-Information Revolution social habits. These people spend all of their money and are very outspoken against the establishment compared to all generations of Americans. Before Information Revolution, the public received information from “controlled” sources such as big media and advertising. The web changed this by providing alternate sources of information for decision making. The popularity of web as an alternate source of information created a new universe. The public now could find information needed for making decisions that was not “controlled” by the elite. This resulted in a whole new American culture.

The new online websites provided reviews by visitors and assigned scores. These scores were averaged and businesses were ranked. The most important factor in this process is that the younger Generation X and Generation Y are big spenders who rely on the online reviews as resources for making decisions to spend money. The online review comments and scores did count in the real world. Also, the online review system includes ALL businesses. The ordinary and not-the-best businesses are also reviewed and can get very poor reviews. The travel books system skipped many businesses not worthy of mentioning thus not hurting them. Travel books were not trying to be fair. They existed to help the elite make money from their businesses. Some rich people own businesses that are plain lousy and neither travel books nor Zagat would review them to do harm. Online reviewing has no controls in place to keep the big and lousy from getting reviewed and possibly bashed. Online review system maybe too free but too many people, who spend money, read them and bad reviews can hurt. The paper books had no bad reviews. In short, online reviewing may work well for the public but can be out-of-control for the rich and their interests.

The problem was not without solutions. Online public review sites may include all businesses and post many bad reviews but the established elite businesses learn fast how to get the online sites to “help” them thus have some “control” as they did with the pre-Information Revolution systems. Unfortunatley, the many businesses that are just ordinary operations remain open to public attacks because they are not sophisticated to know what PR is. Generation Y, as mentioned earlier, are anti-establishment and carry a strong dislike for many enterprises. The public can write whatever they want hurting many of the small businesses. Additionally, the online sites are subject to no editors and can be abused by malicious reviewers or misused by third parties. The bottom line is online review sites have unfriendly designs for the businesses that are reviewed but the rich, as always, have discovered ways to manage the potential damage through these sites while unable to change the design to serve the rich.

Citysearch maybe a fair site and attracts business people and travelers as reviewers. These folks write reviews about many establishments and I find them often coherent, accurate and and worth reading. Even if bad things are said, I find them worth reading and often agreeable. Another example of online sites is Yelp. Yelp is the notorious Generation Y site that has wrecked more businesses than all the other review sites together. Yelp attracts young people of the Gen Y who spend their money and do their shopping based on the online reviews they read. Yelp is very different from the system the Boomers or Gen X were used to for making shopping decisions. The latter were “told” by advertising and their bosses or peers how to live and spend money. Today, the information comes from sites such as Yelp because that is where a bunch of teenagers and over aged teenagers can get together and basically gossip but provide ample information also for others who read to make shopping decisions. This is where all smaller businesses are left open to online reviewers. The people doing the reviewing, on Yelp and the like, have little or NO standards which is one hallmark of their anti-establishment generation. They will say and write whatever they want without any concern especially ignoring what is of benefit to the rich and big businesses. The paperback books omitted many businesses, including the rich, thus protecting them while sites such as Yelp include EVERY and each place it can thus soliciting very bad results for anyplace not conforming to Generation Y. Consumer is the boss in this system for better or worse.

I have always thought businesses should be allowed to “opt out” of the online reviewing process. Many people go into business to run ordinary businesses and not be in a competition. Today, many reviewing systems work similar to TV game shows. If you participate in a TV gameshow and win, you are doing great. In restaurant and business reviewing game, if you get good reviews, you do great. However, nobody gets to decide if they want to attend this game show. You are in because the game show people have created this game, with you already playing, and legally you cannot not attend. Furthermore, opting out is not good for publicity. I came across a very intresting solution that helps keep the independent online reviewing system intact and protects the smaller businesses who have no PR function. Someone suggested a modified solution which I think is great. The online web sites should allow the businesses to “opt out” of the scoring system. The public can still write all the reviews they want but cannot score with a star system. That system was adopted after the newspaper star systems which does not average many journalists review scores. The newspaper stars are just another way to evaluate the business by one journalist. The online stars are a statistical system and has huge flaws. Too few reviews, malicious reviewed, doctored reviews and outdated reviews are examples of how the online star system can be flawed. The flaws also make that system great for manipulation by whoever knows how to. The elite businesses see these huge holes in the system and are happy with the way online review sites can work for them. Opting out of the star means the shopper has to read a few reviews, which can be grouped based what each review is about (such as service, food, and so on) to make a shopping decision. This helps save smaller business and they no longer are auto-registered in the PR review game. And the bottom line is online review sites have huge flaws, which can be abused by the rich, making online reviews flawed standards. These systems need improvement also.

The economy has been changing since the 2008 downturn. The downturn resulted in tight money by business and the public. The public do not have as much power because they don’t spend as much money and as easily as before the downturn. The established businesses get their steady revenues and the rest remain in the gray economic area. The established businesses are beginning to have more control because they are once again becoming the only games in town as they once were before the Information Revolution. The elite know the consumer spending is tight and can be subject to influence and pressure. The public has set aside only so much money to spend as they did before Information Revolution and are careful with how they spend. The public can shop there or can shop there. The public can write bad things online about these businesses but they still have to shop there. On the other hand, the market niches for small businesses are shrinking while the elite are more resilient and can control their niches. This process of change moves to suspend and possibly eliminate many benefits of the Information Revolution. The most likely alternative is a return to the older system. In that system, most businesses were owned and operated by the rich. The small businesses were not good competition. The big corporations and rich people controlled whatever made money and also all standards in those areas. These standards were not objective, neutral and honest. They were All American. They were the way best fit for America and its businesses. America and its businesses meant the rich and their businesses. 89% of all businesses were owned by the 5% of the population. The standards were All American meaning All 5%. The interests of the 95% did not count. Travel books, Zagat guide books are examples of that era’s standards for where is best to shop. Citsearch, Yelp and the like are examples of this era’s standards for where is best to shop. The latter has flaws as the former did but the latter favors the 95% who own only 11% of America. The latter may be weak standards but takes into account the interests of the 95% when setting a standard. Some of the flaws such as the star system for online reviewing can be fixed and there is room for improvement. The critical question is since the business climate has change and we are in a slow change period which may stay indefinitely, what will happen to our standards? Will America return to a culture of “telling” again? Will life group itself into sectors “controlled” by special interest for the big elite again? I really don’t know but believe the need for the public to have a say in how decisions are made is lessening and the old paperback standards are 100% open to manipulation.

One possibility is the travel books, the Zagat guides and the online reviewing websites will exist but will be more subject to what the elite have to say than the public. This means the elite will have a bigger share of who decides things as they once did. That will allow them to return to All American standards which benefited them. In the old days, an American car was designed to break down exactly after the warranty ran out. In the old days, appliances functioned as long as the manufacturer wished to keep selling the inventory. The standards were not objective. Those who made the standards decided who benefited from them and called the standards whatever they wanted. The standards were called All American and the boss said no alternative existed and if did that was un-American choice. Today a new generation, who dislike the boss and what he says are taking over. Generation Y has 100 million people versus Generation X which has 45 million. Generation Y attitudes rule and they spend money like there is no tomorrow. However, the economy is bust and may remain so. The Generation Y money counts less and less because they have less and less. The boss (the elite) can tell everyone where to shop again. Are we going back there? Are we there already but not recognized yet? I had a great cell phone which worked amazingly until two weeks after its one-year warranty ran out. The battery, which had held an amazing charge for one year, became practically worthless in one single day. This used to be the standard for every Americans and they had no recourse until the Information Revolution. Those who owned the big corporations, and rich-owned businesses decided what the standard was and implemented them. The public just followed the standards and any questioning was un-American. It was not until competition from overseas forced American car companies to actually do QUALITY work. All American standards were replaced by “independent.” That meant make cars were made not to break down regularly to keep public from buying the imports for the same cost. The imported standards forced the elite to lose some revenue not to lose the whole source of revenues. They put up with this system of standards now owned by them for over twenty years. Now, the economy is becoming slow for the long run and they don’t need the empowered grunts. Will they return to making all decisions and “telling” the 95% what life is?

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