Unable to sleep due to the porn show next door, I plotted my TripAdvisor review

Jennifer O’Connell: Sometimes I can’t resist spewing hot, angry words into the keyboard

TripAdvisor: review sites have made us omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and, presumably, an omnipain in the posterior for people working in the service industry. Photograph: iStock

TripAdvisor: review sites have made us omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and, presumably, an omnipain in the posterior for people working in the service industry. Photograph: iStock

 

I ordered the spatchcock chicken, but the waiter looked dubious. “Do you actually like bones, though?”

No, I said, I could not be described as a huge fan of bones. “It’s just,” he said, “that some people order it and they’re so disappointed, and I wouldn’t want you to be disappointed.”

The service in the hotel restaurant was very good, I thought, as he guided me expertly towards the spicy chicken thighs, and a side of ham croquettes. He explained the unique features of the three types of chips on the menu, advised on wine, and asked polite, but not intrusive, questions about what I was doing in his city. At the end of the meal, he wondered when I was leaving. Friday, I said.

“Oh no.” He looked genuinely distraught. “I’m off tomorrow. We won’t see each other again.”

I overheard the same polite plea from other staff members. “If you enjoyed the service, would you minding leaving a TripAdvisor review, and mentioning me by name?”

The next time he came by my table, he slipped me a business card with his name carefully handwritten on it. I flexed my ring finger, and got ready to explain that I’m a happily-married mother of three and, while not quite old enough to be his mother, I’m at least old enough to be his older half-sister from his dad’s first marriage.

“If you enjoyed the service,” he said, “would you minding leaving a TripAdvisor review, and mentioning me by name?”

Management take TripAdvisor reviews very seriously, he explained, while I tried not to look crestfallen. If he didn’t get enough good ones, questions would be asked. A bad review could result in a full investigation. “I don’t know what to make of it, really. It’s very stressful. I mean,” he whispered, “some people are just cranky.”

The next day, in the hotel bar, I overheard the same polite plea from other staff members. “If you enjoyed the service, would you minding leaving a TripAdvisor review, and mentioning me by name?”

This is what we’ve come to. It’s like we’re living through an episode of Black Mirror, the Netflix series written by Charlie Brooker – the one in which the protagonist, Lacie, finds herself in a cloying world of pleasantries and subdued passive aggression, as every social and business interaction is scored, affecting her ability to rent a house or take a flight.

Before online reviews, the customer was never king. We were lesser royals, a second-cousin-once-removed Windsor, who is 53rd in line to the throne and best known for once having worked as a music critic for Town & Country magazine. But in the two decades of their existence, review sites have made us omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and, presumably, an omnipain in the posterior for people working in the service industry, whose livelihood depends on pleading for upvotes.

Still, even though I get queasy at the idea that someone else’s job might be affected by the hot, angry words I spew into the keyboard, there have been times I couldn’t resist. In a Dublin hotel a few months ago, unable to sleep due to the sound of the four-hour, vigorous, live-action porn show on the other side of the cardboard door connecting my room with the one next door, I lay there plotting my TripAdvisor review. (Google the words “live audio demo of the effects of Viagra.” But maybe not while you’re at work.)

Even if you’re not a writer, a waiter or an Uber driver, the “reputation economy” has its sights on you

It’s not only people in the service industry whose job security now rests on the whims of the terminally irate. If you’re a writer, Goodreads and Amazon reviews are your nemesis. If you’re a driver, it’s Uber. If you rent out your house, it’s Airbnb. If you’re a journalist, it’s the below-the-line comments. If Hemingway was around today, would he keep going in the face of damning Amazon reviews? “This is a dull slog of a book about a bunch of layabouts who drink and make themselves miserable,” goes one on Amazon of The Sun Also Rises.

Even if you’re not a writer, a waiter or an Uber driver, the “reputation economy” has its sights on you. The Harvard Business Review reported recently that 70 per cent of US companies use social media to screen prospective employees; half monitor current employees.

All of this might be fine in theory, the consumer economy made more transparent and democratic, but in practice we’re giving far too much power to reviews that aren’t subjective, written by people who aren’t representative, and often have no idea what they’re talking about. According to the New York Times, only around 1.5 per cent of the population leaves reviews and the people who do are more likely to “buy things in unusual sizes, make returns, be married, have more children, be younger and less wealthy, and have graduate degrees than the average consumer”.

Eric Anderson and Duncan Simester, at Northwestern University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that 5 per cent of people review products they haven’t bought. The longer the review was, and the more irrelevant details, personal experience and exclamation marks it included, the more likely the reviewer was to be making the whole thing up. And when we read reviews, we give far more weight to negative ones.

Which reminds me, I still haven’t got around to reviewing Spatchcock Chicken Guy. I’ll be kind.

joconnell@irishtimes.com

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