Recently, a relatively harmless and unassuming looking man walked up to the counter of a very popular Canberra restaurant and attempted an act of blackmail. The man was not after money, but chicken wings. And the threat was not one of life and death, but rather, a bad review on ‘every food site on the web’. The restaurant manager was understandably taken aback, but managed to keep her cool enough to ask why he was demanding this particular ransom. He answered that he had eaten there a few weeks back, and come away a little unhappy. He figured that the free chicken wings–24 of them to be precise–were fair compensation.
The manager, trying to make the best of a bad situation, agreed to his demand on the proviso that the man supplies her with identification and contact details. The man, not willing to come out from under the cloak of anonymity that his status as online reviewer was affording him, refused and went away empty handed. The establishment in question was Smoque. We know that because they were kind enough to share their story. The man was anybody. The management at Smoque can only assume that he is furiously banging away on some anonymous keyboard at this very moment, preparing to unleash some user-generated fire and brimstone, and shedding a secret tear at the prospect–now that he has exposed his face to them at least–of never being able to taste the spicy goodness of the very loot he had hoped to appropriate with his extortion.
I suspect that the creators of sites such as Trip Advisor, Yelp and Zomato did not necessarily have this type of behaviour in mind when they imagined their respective online enterprises; and perhaps our man is an extreme example, but sadly this shitty attitude is a growing phenomenon in the online world. Not only is it leaving a bad taste in the mouths of hard working business owners who are mostly trying to deliver decent service to their clientele, it is giving scabs with a sense of entitlement and a fallacious impression of their own influence an opportunity to make unreasonable and sometimes rude demands, and basically behave like petulant spoilt brats.
Grant Kells, the owner of Smoque, says that in times past, when a customer had a grievance, they would usually contact the relevant restaurant by phone or email, and in most cases, all would be resolved with both parties acting in a civil manner and showing a degree of good will. Today, he says, people are more likely to go online to vent anonymously, not necessarily with a view to finding a solution, but rather, to extract some kind of revenge. Off the record, a growing number of people in the industry are getting fed up with the type of customer who mentions that they are regular a reviewer on social media sites, in order to make unreasonable requests.
Which brings us to the question: Now that everybody with a smartphone or a laptop is capable of being a publisher, how much should any of us rely on largely unqualified ‘reviewers’ to guide us in making a choice? Once upon a time, a ‘food critic’ had to have some credentials in order to publish their opinion in mainstream media–a combination of hospitality experience and communications skills that would lift them to the mantle of ‘expert’ and provide the reader with a fair assessment of the subject. Today, online opinion sadly swings between the sycophantic gushing of the content-desperate blogger and the uneducated whiney rant of the anonymous troll. Throw in this new type of online mafia and there is ample evidence to suggest that anything written anonymously online should be taken with a grain of salt, as it is either tainted with the emotion of a person who feels aggrieved or just downright wrong.
Restaurant review apps are a good thing. In an age when Big Media no longer has a monopoly on comment, they act as a digital word of mouth, and give their users a fair indication of what to expect when searching for a place to eat. For those that wish to play critic however, there is an old saying that a point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding. If you make a habit of contributing to such apps, it is wise to remember that your opinion is mostly that of a layperson, so please be mindful of the fact that your comment may unfairly impact somebody else’s livelihood. For those that attempt to exploit social media for the purpose of extorting better service, surely there are better ways of doing this than to point a proverbial gun to the heads of restaurant staff. Most disputes can be resolved with the soft diplomacy of face-to-face communication, good manners, and an even temper. Remember, nobody likes an arsehole. Even when that arsehole is a paying customer.