You may refer to me as an elitist after this statement, but I have never liked the term “crowdsourcing.” There was this conceit in the mid-2000s as the Internet achieved its zenith that connecting everybody would automatically connect all the talent.
Please try to put this into context: back in 2005, George W. Bush had just been confirmed for a second term, and Paris Hilton was considered a talented person worthy of book deals and music contracts. Our notion of talent had become critically-ill in the days following September 11 and Iraq – powerful was the same as good for us. Anything that was big would appear to the average person as excellent. This was the backdrop for our fetish for crowdsourcing, epitomized by James Surowiecki’s book “The Wisdom of Crowds,” which lazily attempted to upend the genius of analysts, creators and leaders around the world in favor of undifferentiated digital groups of whomever.
I have loved the Internet for an entirely different reason, the opposite reason. The Internet doesn’t connect me with crowds – it connects me with freakishly talented, misfit, unusual human beings, many of whom would not enter into my consciousness through the obligatory mediocrity filter of the today’s conglomerated media. The Internet, for me, doesn’t give me 10,000 people to make (flabby, useless) predictions or design me a bland logo at the lowest cost – it connects me with misanthropes, geniuses, freaks, geeks and other people who will never get famous otherwise. And they become my friends. We live in a very cool world that way.
I was excited to see another person for whom intellectual crowdsourcing is a net-negative: Andrew Zimmern, whom you might know better from his Travel Channel show Bizarre Foods. Yes, on that show he might be wandering around eating emu crotch and frog eyelids – but he’s an extremely well regarded chef, having started his culinary training in his teenage years and having risen through the ranks to executive chef. He knows his craft inside out. And that is why I loved seeing his reaction to Yelp, which crowdsources reviews of restaurants and other services, which he deems “a forum for uninformed morons.”
Here’s something that really pisses me off: Yelp. I was against Yelp for a long time. I don’t like the idea of Yelp. The problem for me is that crowd sourcing is very beneficial except when it comes to things like restaurant criticism and restaurant reviews and restaurant recommenders. Just the same way I don’t ask my five year old to tell me whether or not I should go see the movie This Is Forty or Sessions or The French Lieutenant’s Woman, I don’t ask my son which John Updike book is his favorite — because he’ll just point at any old random one. And while he might get lucky, and certainly most John Updike books are really good, Yelp essentially gives a tremendous forum for a bunch of uninformed morons to take down restaurants. That’s a lot different than Pete Wells taking down Guy Fieri’s restaurant.*
Now, while some people may see that as being a fairly mild thing to talk about, some people may think there’s Zimmern, another tempest in a teapot. No. What this is, is it’s just further proof that after I softened my position on Yelp a year ago in an editorial in Minneapolis St Paul Magazine where I said look, some of that stuff seems to be fairly well managed. I have now decided after another six eight months have gone by that the number of stories that I hear like this from people who I trust, who I know aren’t BSing me (and Doug and Bryan are friends of mine) that Yelp has become dangerously unstable. Because clearly they have people abusing the system, who are using the Yelp name to go out and graymail and blackmail restaurants. Yelp to me is something that just doesn’t work. It’s official now: Yelp is on my shit list.
I think there should be a place where “regular people” can have their say about local services. The Internet helps us overcome the bottlenecks of, for example, a local newspaper, where a reviewer might never say anything bad for fear of lost ad revenue. I don’t want to lose digital reviews and social customer service entirely – but they need to be put into context. What I like is the notion that our culture should have an intellectual place for experts. This became seriously out of style in the past 10 years, especially in America, where being an unenlightened jackass was supposed to be some kind of badge of honor.
Who are you an’ all yer fancy book learnin’ to tell me ’bout nation-state building in Mesapotamia? I got values and faith and stuff – and yer an East Coast elistist guy!
But – oh thank the deity of your choice – those days appear to be going away. Sweet Krishna-Jesus-Ba’al-or-Zoroaster, the notion of expertise seems to be re-emerging. Because Zimmern is correct – chances are, the teeming millions do not possess the background to put a given restaurant or book or film into context. That’s not to say that I want to base my entire cultural life on the same 200 Princeton douchebags for everything – but sometimes, you need to hear from somebody who specializes in film. Somebody who can recognize the influences of a given scene, speak to whether the actor is a follower of Stanislavski, maybe understands the source material for the screenplay. Expertise.
It’s okay again to be smart.
Yell it from the mountain tops.
*P.S. You really need to read the New York Times review of Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant. It’s not 2004 anymore. Big and stupid doesn’t make the grade.