As social media (especially crowdsourced review sites such as Yelp, Cellartracker or various apps on the market) replaces traditional media in the assessment of wine and food, it’s important to keep in mind what is lost when we replace expertise with the “wisdom” of crowds.
Tom Wark recently made some important points about traditional criticism that are worth repeating:
Critics have existed ever since Aristotle laid down the law on literary forms and people looking to understand the nature of quality in all its forms have looked to educated, well spoken, experienced critics to help them understand the nature of quality. A retreat from the experienced and educated critic in favor of the mob is no advancement.
And this goes for wine and wine critics. No one has to explain to me the value of crowd sourced reviews, nor their power. But wine is not a power adapter, nor is it a 50 inch HD TV. It’s savored for its meaning and parts and origin. A crowd can take a stab at those things, but it can’t say anything definitive about them. No one argues with a crowd sourced review. They do argue with the views and ideas of an individual, particularly the individual critic and this is how you can tell they are relevant.
The important point here is that traditional critics (at least the good ones) when they assess a wine or restaurant are not merely thinking about what is in the glass or on the plate. They also have to think about the criteria they use in the assessment. They are, as Tom says, trying to “understand the nature of quality”. Which features of the wine or dish should be emphasized and why? What should it be compared to? Why are these considerations more important than other potential factors? Are there unique features of a wine or dish that make conventional criteria irrelevant? Does the wine or dish have a meaning or significance that goes beyond its flavor profile?
In other words, a good critic thinks not just about the object being criticized but the standards she is using in the assessment. That debate about standards should be part of a complete review.
With social media that employs crowdsourcing this dimension of criticism is lost. (Individual blogs are an exception; the format permits a more thorough treatment) On Yelp or Cellartracker you find only summary judgments with a few rushed comments; and surely no tendency toward thoughtful reflection on standards or criteria.
Crowdsourced reviews tell us nothing except what’s popular. The alleged connection between popularity and quality is simply assumed.
But why should we ever assume that what is popular is of high quality. After all, the best art and music in our traditions were seldom what was most popular. Has the modern crowd suddenly acquired “expertise” because we have better access to what they think?
If you believe that, contact me—I have a bridge I’d like to sell you.