The Heartburn Of Too Many Reviews

May 6 2013 @ 2:19pm

Tom Vanderbilt is often afflicted by it:

In the days before the Internet, eating at an unknown restaurant meant relying on a clutch of quick and dirty heuristics. The presence of many truck drivers or cops at a lonely diner supposedly vouchsafed its quality (though it may simply have been the only option around). For “ethnic” food, there was the classic benchmark: “We were the only non-[insert ethnicity] people in there.” Or you could spend anxious minutes on the sidewalk, under the watchful gaze of the host, reading curling, yellowed reviews, wondering if what held in 1987 was still true today. In an information-poor environment, you sometimes simply went with your gut (and left clutching it).

Today, via Yelp (or TripAdvisor or Amazon, or any Web site teeming with “user-generated content”), you are often troubled by the reverse problem: too much information.

As I navigate a Yelp entry to simply determine whether a place is worth my money, I find myself battered between polar extremes of experience: One meal was “to die for,” another “pretty lame.” Drifting into narrow currents of individual proclivity (writing about a curry joint where I had recently lunched, one reviewer noted that “the place had really good energy, very Spiritual [sic], which is very important to me”), I eventually capsize in a sea of confusion. I either quit the place altogether or, by the time I arrive, am weighed down by a certain exhaustion of expectation, as if I had already consumed the experience and was now simply going through the motions.

Recent Dish on the “paradox of choice” here.

(Screenshot of prison reviews on Yelp)