26 November 2012

Crowd-sourcing then and now

I just read Arthur Frommer's latest newspaper column, in which he takes on crowd-sourced review sites such as TripAdvisor:
As for me, I find it increasingly difficult to rely on the user-generated sites. Scanning the reviews of a particular property, I frequently find that some 40 or so people claim it to be one of the best they have ever patronized, while another 40 or so people claim it is the worst they have ever patronized. Which to believe? Some defenders of the user-generated sites have composed elaborate formulas by which they eliminate the best and worst extremes, and simply look at reviews by people conferring only moderate praise or blame on the property. But then, what is the utility of using the site?

Though I'll be attacked as having a self-interest in this question, I will continue to rely on the judgment of experts — experienced journalists, in most instances — and not on the reviews of amateur and inexperienced critics.
Something about that sounded mighty familiar, so I went back and looked at some of my book notes. My 1963 edition of Europe on $5 a Day had its own version of user-generated tips at the end of each chapter-- Arthur was receiving some five thousand letters each year by 1967. As with internet comments, some of these comments were genuinely insightful, and some were ... not. Like this one from the Amsterdam chapter of E5D:
We are the oldest active firm of diamond manufacturers in this city. . . . As a form of publicity, we have a permanent Diamond and Diamond Manufacturing Exhibition, installed in the original premises of the firm, which are situated on the banks of the Amstel River. . .
This goes on. It highlights the hours, the air conditioning (“a novelty for Amsterdam”), the demonstrations by the diamond-cutters. “It's like the original spam comment,” Lee said. Arthur apparently agreed. In 2009, he told USA Today:
The whole emphasis on user-generated content is foolish. I was the first person to use it with the “readers' selections” in Europe on $5 A Day, in which I printed verbatim letters from readers. I was so proud of it. I even said they were better than mine because I was going to 40 or 50 hotels and a reader would remember one place that stands out. Then we realized it was being massively manipulated. Hotel (operators) were getting friends to send in recommendations. About 25 years ago we dropped it.
To fight the current spate of questionable, anonymously-offered travel opinions, some web sites are trying out old tactics. Such sites “aim to eliminate much of the annoyance of online trip planning by winnowing the selection of hotels and destinations to an edited list,” The New York Times breathlessly reported in 2010. “Call it the curated search.” Uh-huh. Or call it, you know, a guidebook. How soon we forget the time-tested tool when presented with its new, flashy offspring.