Responses to this article have been lighting up my Facebook feed; most emanate from this distinguished group of food writers.
A group of French restaurateurs and hoteliers have launched a petition to effectively ban all “defamatory” reviews. The petition (translated), which the Local writes was started by Michelin-starred chef Pascal Favre d’Anne, currently has well over 1,700 signatures. It requests that the Minister of Commerce prohibit “judging and of posting defamatory comments and subjective observations on members of staff in our restaurants. We ask reviewing sites to moderate their users and to ask for proof of their visits to our establishments.”
The complaint is about sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor that allow anyone to comment. And their accusations about Yelp have some validity. Because anyone can comment, business owners can pay people to write favorable reviews of their services or unfavorable reviews of their competition, people with an axe to grind or a grudge can negatively influence public perceptions of a business, and reviewers usually lack the expertise to make informed judgments about the businesses they criticize.
The result is that small businesses, especially restaurants, who lack the resources to mount a Yelp campaign can be subject to vicious criticism before they have a chance to get their feet on the ground. Getting all aspects of a new restaurant to function efficiently can take months which is why professional restaurant reviewers decline to write about new restaurants until they have time to get their act together. Yelp reviewers have no such restraint. And If you are trying to do something unusual or unique, your chances of pleasing the Yelpers are slim since most will not understand it. Many business have failed because of unfavorable Yelp reviews which meet no standards for objectivity.
Frankly, I find Yelp is useless when seeking a restaurant to try. The problem is not the irrational, ill-informed rants you find there—it is easy enough to ignore them. The problem is effusive, over-the-top praise for mediocre food. The best restaurant of a certain type will seldom be the one that gets the most votes from Yelpers, simply because most of the people who post there are clueless about good food and are not seeking something unusual or interesting. You simply cannot get expertise from the input of 1000 non-experts—which is the fallacy behind crowd-sourced reviews. The only thing I can discover about a restaurant by reading through Yelp reviews is whether they have fast, friendly service most of the time.
Restaurants who take the time to make good food will be systematically disadvantaged by “reviewers” who really only care about stuffing their face. And making good food does take time. Yelp and similar venues have done nothing to improve the quality of dining, and in fact are probably contributing to the dumbing down of cuisine. So I sympathize with these French chefs and other business owners who must figure out how to navigate the shoals of uninformed public opinion.
However, the idea of banning negative reviews is not the way to go. If you ban negative reviews then only positive reviews are permitted. But then I have no reason to believe the positive reviews since I’m getting a biased picture by default. By banning negative reviews you make reviews themselves irrelevant.
And there is simply no way to be sure people who post on Yelp have actually visited the place of business. The resources required to monitor compliance would be enormous; but more importantly such a requirement, at least in the U.S. , would be laughed out of court for clear violations of the First Amendment. Courts have consistently ruled that compelling a publisher to guarantee the accuracy of assertions of fact would lead to intolerable self-censorship. False speech, except in very particular contexts, is generally protected in U.S. courts (Which of course does not apply to France. I don’t know the French legal context)
One common sentiment the keeps popping up in this discussion was that there ought to be some protection from vicious, stupid or ill-informed people. Indeed there ought to be. Moral philosophers have thought so for millennia. When we have found that protection we will have achieved utopia—it won’t be in my lifetime.
This debate about Yelp is interesting because it raises fundamental issues about democracy. Yelp (and other such sites) have democratized criticism—everyone’s a critic with no demonstration of expertise. That has certainly harmed criticism and food writing in general, and as I noted above, it has probably harmed the practice of dining as well. This trend toward diminishing the importance of expertise is troubling. But that is a price we pay for democracy.
To argue that Yelpers should be banned from commenting is to assert that the stupid and ill-informed ought not have a voice. That is profoundly anti-democratic and if implemented generally would have baleful effects on society.