17 October 2018

Ban the "Customer Review"







What do these pictures have in common?  Read on...

 

Some years ago I worked as an occasional hotel inspector.  Not a full-time job, nor even one which can ever be put on to my CV, but in the days when one of the big sellers in any bookshop was the clutch of annual hotel guides giving clear, detailed and objective assessments of a huge range of hotels, I was one of the people who helped decide which hotels warranted inclusion.

Hotel guides in those days were complex, professional things.  A minimum of three separate inspectors visited every hotel listed, and cumulatively provided impartial and objective assessments aimed at making the bewildering choice of which hotel to stay in a trifle less bewildering.  All three inspectors had a very different but professional relationship with the hospitality industry, and from their various perspectives, were able to form valid opinions on each establishment.

The first tier (of which I was a part) were ordinary members of the public who, by virtue of their full-time work, spent at least 100 nights every year in hotels.  My work as an ABRSM examiner at the time meant that I was averaging 160 nights every year in hotels the length and breadth of the United Kingdom.  While going about our normal work, setting off each day from the hotel after breakfast, going back to work and relax in the hotel room, eating in the restaurants, drinking in the bars, and possibly sampling other facilities, we had to complete detailed questionnaires which then went to the editorial office.  We stayed in a completely random array of hotels, were never told where to stay, and were under strict instructions never to tell the hotel what our “undercover” role was.  I signed a document agreeing to total secrecy about my role – which lapsed long ago when the publishers of the Guide went bust and Hotel Guides in general disappeared from the bookshelves, pushed out by a plethora of free online review sites. 

The next tier were people with a background in the hotel industry (often hoteliers themselves) who went back to the hotels we had recommended, again completely anonymously, and appraised them from a professional point of view.  After checking out and paying their bills, they would then introduce themselves to the hotel and arrange for a site visit from one or more professional inspectors.  These would get access to all parts of the hotel, and would then compile the final report which would determine the hotel’s star rating.  It was most satisfying when one saw one’s original recommendation being included in the next annual edition of the Guide.

Hotels aren’t assessed that way anymore.  The ubiquitous TripAdvisor relies on frequently biased and interested amateurs posting their unverified and unvetted opinions, and gormless, gullible readers assuming these postings are definitive, professional reviews.  My only direct contact with TripAdvisor came after a horrendous stay in a London Travelodge when I wrote a stern letter to the Manager, who then invited me to complete a Questionnaire.  I pulled no punches in my castigation of his hotel, and did not bother to mark the box about my review being shared on TripAdvisor (I assumed the hotel would not be stupid enough to post such a negative review into the public domain, and I certainly would never have dreamt of doing any such thing myself).  Lo and behold, it apparently popped up on TripAdvisor and I received (and continue to receive) unsolicited mails from them telling me how many people have been influenced by my review, and inviting me to write more. Never!  I think I’d rather stick my head in a bucket of quick-drying cement and ask my friends to video my suffering and upload it to YouTube.

The issue is that with the immediacy and openness of internet review sites, the legitimacy and quality of reviews is not so much compromised as completely negated.  When any idiot (myself included) with no knowledge or understanding of the issues involved, and perhaps a personal axe to grind or a direct personal relationship with the subject of the review, can present a review as if it were authoritative, and thereby influence the decisions of others, reviewing loses all credibility.

A student comes to show me his “reviews” on Amazon, Facebook, and the like, and I ask him why he bothers.  His response is that several thousand people have already read his review and “liked” it (I think several million would “like” my bucket of quick-drying cement stunt, but that does not validate it).  I have a friend who, largely unable to get out due to a disability, spends his time trawling through YouTube posts and writing rude and offensive “reviews” on them; his argument is that if these people are so stupid as to upload their miserable attempts at making music into a public arena, they must face the consequences.  And I rather sympathise with that.

My student bemoaned that some people wrote such hostile things about him after reading his reviews.  “Why do they do it?” he wailed.  The answer is simple.  Anyone who posts a review on an unregulated forum has to accept that such an arena for opinion warrants unvetted responses.

Professional reviews (be they of hotels or music) have the armour of legitimacy behind them; they are written and edited by trained and experienced individuals who have an obligation to uphold impartiality and authority.  If people wish to criticise what we have written, they are welcome; because we know our personal opinions are valid and considered.  We cannot say that about reviews appearing on unedited, unregulated and uncontrolled media.  The time has now come for sensible people who care about music to demand an end to these absolutely pointless “customer reviews” on free internet sites; they serve only to undermine the validity and quality of good reviewing.

Soon the idea of the music reviewer will go the same way as the hotel reviewer; forget impartiality, knowledge and experience, let’s celebrate bias, ignorance and amateurism. If the old idea of an edited review presented in printed form is a dinosaur, all I can say is that the posted opinion on the internet is the meteor which wiped them all out and allowed the world to be regenerated (according to some scientists) by cockroaches and rats.

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