In a simpler time, the critic ruled. His (or her) word was the only word, the final word. Opinions were shaped, reputations made and businesses flourished on the back of their endorsement. If you had a view too, there was no one to listen.
Today, comment is free and opinion is everywhere. On burrp! and Zomato, regular people with regular appetites are telling you just how mini the mini macarons are at the pretentious new café. A 300-page book has 900 reviews on Amazon. People around the world are using TripAdvisor to volunteer their own experiences of the ‘cosy, rustic suite’ you are booking for your holiday.
There are online user reviews for film, music, technology, video games, salons, cars – even for the Taj Mahal. Regular nobodies with regular jobs are collectively offering more information than any expert’s one-time-only comments.
And yet, you need only to browse through a few user opinions to realise how much of it is ill-informed, badly communicated and unsubstantiated. For any sense to emerge, you’ll have to trawl through 30 "awesomes", 40 "bulls**ts" and a few, "Taj sux… Y so white, yaar?" For some things (like groceries), there’s just no full-time expert; for some others (like movies) there’s no single site for user reviews.
So what’s a Brunch reader to do – stick to the expert or consult everyman for everything? We spoke to both sides and here’s what we found…
Restaurant Critics v/s Raging Foodies
Reviewing a meal isn’t like reviewing a book. For one thing, it’s as much a practical product as an artistic endeavour (a small portion will leave a diner hungry, while a slim book can still be quite fulfilling to read). And unlike a film, album or book, meals are created separately for every diner. "So the review will always be of an individual experience," says Vir Sanghvi, the country’s best-known food critic.
Several reasons make user-review sites like burrp! and Zomato more helpful than individual critics. They store reviews of every restaurant – not just the newest one – and their crowdsourced repository is so wide, no critic can compete.
At burrp!, COO Sandeep Das, describes user reviews as "real experiences shared by real people". He adds that their site’s new segregated rating system even allows users to rate ambience, service and price, in addition to the food. "Specifics such as which dishes are a ‘must try’ and ‘best avoided’, value for money, child friendliness and parking, bring a completeness to it all," he explains.
Diners score over critics in another aspect. "There is an inkling of suspicion that critics get the best of what an establishment has to offer," Das says. Sanghvi agrees. "Most reviewers are recognised," he says explaining it’s why he rarely does reviews and why he comes clean in his review when he is spotted. "The biggest advantage a diner-reviewer has is that he is anonymous," Sanghvi says. Crucially, critics rarely pay for meals – their publication or the restaurant usually does. It makes one wonder if this influences how a critic orders and perceives value for money. "There’s some hypocrisy there," he says.
Why listen to a critic then? Because the masses don’t know everything. "The average restaurant critic is still more experienced," Sanghvi explains. "He or she knows how the process works. For instance, if dessert took time coming, they’ll know that it’s not a service issue but a kitchen issue. Diners tend to like what is already popular. If you rely on them alone you’ll be stuck in a rut. All progress is possible because of criticism."
WHOM TO HEED
On burrp! well liked reviews mention the order, the service, the amount spent and tips like ‘Avoid on Sunday’, or ‘Ideal for business meals’. Top critics include thoughtful comments about the cuisine, the neighbourhood, the concept and the chef. "Read a few reviews by any individual and you can guess how close his/her likes are to yours," Das says.
I’m a critic!
Roopashree Narayan aka roopashree.bn "My 9-to-6 job in HR left me with lots of free time. I’d visit burrp! for reviews and eventually began writing them myself. I now have 256 reviews up and it feels good when those I know call me for recommendations, though friends just keep expecting me to post more reviews. I’m a people person and this has helped me build a network of people and restaurateurs. I’m often asked which job is better. Reviewing is my passion, not my job."
"Denser than a deep dish pizza, as dark as a David Lynch film…" A user review for Too Faced mascara
"If you think Keanu Reeves is a good actor, you’d totally love this movie" A user review for Inception
Book critics v/s compulsive readers
Critics believe it’s doubly important for a book reviewer to also be a good writer. After all, a well-written review of a terrible book is more helpful than someone’s garbled commentary about a book that’s actually wonderful. Or is it? Harvard Business School compared the top 100 non-fiction reviews from 40 Western publications (2004-2007) to data from sites like Amazon and published the results this year. It appeared the critics and crowds concurred.
But the subtle differences were telling: Users tended to be more favourable to debut authors, indicating that critics might be close-minded. And critics tended to respond more favourably to books by prizewinning authors – another sign that experts are swayed by laurels.
Amazon (which operates as a marketplace or a platform for retailers), displays reviews from both literary critics and shoppers. “Users read more than one review and make their decisions based on a body of reviews,” says Amit Agarwal, vice president and country manager of Amazon India. “Features like star rating [illustrate] overall customer sentiment, but the review text is what builds confidence in the product.” Which means again, that reviews must be well written to be of any use.
“A user review is usually a précis and a gush about how fantastic the book is or a scream about how terrible it is,” points out Indrajit Hazra, author and books commentator at HT.
“Rarely does it say why they liked or didn’t like the book.” Here’s where critics have the upper hand. “If a reviewer writes about how wonderful a novel is because it, say, captures the truth about father-daughter relationships or the absurdities of bureaucratic India, these may be the qualities that don’t interest you,” he says.
For populist authors, Hazra finds that user reviews are a “feedback form”, a way for the author to gauge customer satisfaction and drive future sales. “The user reviewer is the quantitative force that many writers can’t ignore,” he adds.
“The expert reviewer is the qualitative force that can be a brand-multiplier. So a Chetan Bhagat will be more concerned about what user reviewers are saying, while a Vikram Seth will produce his fare regardless. It’s a ‘volume v/s value difference.”
WHOM TO HEED
It depends if you’re impressed by volume or value. “As early as 1995 when Jeff Bezos started Amazon.com , [it was a] conscious decision to showcase negative reviews alongside positive reviews,” Agarwal says. “Many were surprised by this decision to keep negative comments visible.” Praise is hard to decode, but if a person dislikes a book for reasons you would too, they are your kind of reviewer.
I'm a critic
Anaggh Desai aka lashkar “When burrp! had just started, I uploaded 100 reviews in a single night. The co-founder called to confirm that I was not a bot! I have 380 reviews up, but it’s not a public service, just a way to satisfy my ego. Still, I’ve mellowed. I ask ‘Do I want to get into a fight with the hipster who thinks frozen yoghurt is fantastic?’ Not anymore.”
“It’s horrible. It does not reflect the history of the time at all.” A user review for Game Of Thrones Season 1
Travel is tricky. Locations change with the seasons, the economy and the socio-political climate. So trusting a single expert opinion or even many user opinions is risky. Plus, no single writer, however skilled, can address the needs of every kind of trip, every size of tour, every interest group, every budget and every seasonal attraction through a single travelogue.
But user reviews collected over time end up offering the very details that experts miss. “There’s a volume of perspective and you can filter your needs accordingly,” says Nikhil Ganju, country manager for TripAdvisor India.
Many believe bona fide travellers to be more reliable than a writer on a sponsored trip. Rishad Saam Mehta, who has visited 50 countries in the last decade, agrees. He says it often results in a sugary, one-dimensional review as the orchestrated tour leaves no room for independent discovery.
But global travel is impossible on any travel writer’s income, so he’s found a solution. “If just the journey and the stay are paid for, it still allows a writer the freedom and autonomy to determine what to do and where to go while visiting,” he explains. This, then is a travel writer’s advantage – the review is the primary purpose of the trip.
“The critic gets the luxury of time to cover more interesting angles for a reader,” Ganju concedes. “You’d have to look at four or five user reviews to get the same information.” Mehta actively seeks out off-the-trail bars, makes multiple visits to a popular attraction and gets out of bed before dawn to photograph a sunrise that another traveller might never see.
“I go looking for the things you hope to stumble on,” he says. “I look for the flaws, good stuff, hidden stuff and hidden costs.”As for user reviews, even Ganju advises against trusting ones that are too gushy or negative. "Ignore the outliers and focus on the average review," he says. But users remain the best source for information on scams, child-friendly attractions, rooms, getting around, and bargaining tips.
WHOM TO HEED
For best results, allow a travelogue to seduce you with its poetry and big picture. Then, turn to user reviews for practical information like hotels, local travel and food. "I use the site’s top-10 hotels as a guide when I travel and they never disappoint," Ganju says. They don’t disappoint Mehta either: "Even I check out reviews before I travel!"
When it comes to cosmetics and skincare, glossies and sales people pronounce everything wonderful. Reviews are often by someone with a different colouring and budget. That’s why reviews on Makeupalley.com aren’t just the better option, often they’re the only option. On the site, you can choose to see reviews only from those who match your skin tone, age and concerns, and then see only what the haters (or fans) are saying.
Most women also mention their climate, hours of use, comparison points and application tips and list ‘dupes’ (cheaper or easier-to-find substitutes). Plus, it’s fun to read how a fuchsia lipstick helps one girl prepare for "war or physics class" and how a refoundation gave another the complexion of a "female Edward Cullen". Beauty may be subjective, but picking the right beauty product is not rocket science anymore.
"I fell asleep 4 times. What the heck was the movie about??" A user review for 2001: A Space Odyssey
I’m a critic!
Sonali Shah aka sosha_sosha “I started posting hotel reviews to give back to the TripAdvisor community which had helped me on my trips. I’m a journalist, but my 200-word reviews on the site aren’t different. I just focus on the right details – not which room in a hotel is the best; but if the hotel has wheelchair access.
Deepa Krishnan, Destination Expert “Since I am in the travel business, I have up-to-date information about travel to India. I answer 2-3 posts a day, it takes 10 minutes. It is rewarding, you get a nice warm glow and notes of appreciation.”
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From HT Brunch, September 8
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