Why You Shouldn’t Trust Yelp Reviews

My Dad moved on Saturday, and the experience was horrible: the nominal “company” lied about whether the movers were employees or contractors, the movers themselves were inept and late, and they damaged a piece of furniture.

On Sunday my Dad wrote a nasty e-mail to the owner about the experience. On Monday he hadn’t heard anything, so he posted a scathing Yelp review. This afternoon—Tuesday—someone from the company called and said they’d refund the money if he took down the Yelp review.

My Dad paid $1,400 for the move. I hate to repeat myself, but it’s worth contemplating: The moving company found that a single negative Yelp review could be worth $1,400.

Why? As far as we can tell, the moving company consists of a guy with a telephone and a Yelp rating. He hires crews and rents trucks. If he loses his Internet ratings, he’s cooked.

Nonetheless, the important lesson for people on the Internet is that you shouldn’t trust Yelp and similar reviews.

One could argue that my Dad shouldn’t accept money to take down the review, but, as he observed, he’s not out to save the world from crappy movers.

Social news sites and forums should encourage users to blog

In online forum culture, there’s a strong bias against linking to a poster’s own blog. That bias often slides into strict rule enforcement that degrades the quality of the forum itself, because most people who regularly produce substantive writing will want their own, ideally non-transient, forum for such writing. A blog provides that and most websites don’t. That means sites like Reddit—which has an overly strong opposition to what they call “blogspam”—tend towards intellectual vacuousness.

I’ve seen people on Slashdot, Hacker News, and most notably Reddit decry blogspam. The decrying is sometimes justified: writing a weak, sloppy post and linking to or submitting it is a play for readers at the expense of the reader’s time. But there’s a very good to encourage linking to longer, more thoughtful writing: it’s often higher quality than most of what one finds in online forums.

Let’s use myself as an example. Some posts here take hours to write and reflects many more hours of deliberate research—which few (though not zero) forum posts do. Forums and social media encourage the ad-hoc and fast (that’s sometimes appropriate). While blogs can do the same, there’s a stronger cultural tendency, especially since the rise of Facebook and Twitter, to write more thoughtfully, more essayistically. Clearly this is not universal. It’s possible to find deeply thoughtful forum posts and dumb blog posts, but as a general tendency the rule holds. Even those who don’t consciously make the distinction between work on a free-standing blog and a temporary forum post probably intuitively feel the difference, though they may not have articulated it.

And there’s a good reason for people writing blogs to prefer depth: on blogs, the writer controls, or should control, their own content. I can export all my WordPress posts and take them with me to whatever the blogging platform of 2020 might be. That’s not true of Reddit. Anyone who invested heavily in a Slashdot identity circa 1999 – 2004 now feels like an idiot: that identity is basically worthless. Few people read Slashdot anymore. Any substantive comments are trapped there, invisible in the eyes of Google and Bing (which is like being invisible in the eyes of God).

By contrast, many of the substantive blogs out there are still out there. Work I published in 2009 can, and often is, still be relevant, while I can’t even keep track of the forum posts I wrote in 2009. They’re too disparate. Blogs act as repositories. Social news sites live in a perpetual present, with little sense of history or books. Few evidence any sign of outside reading, or knowledge that they’re not the first to contemplate most issues or problems.

In addition, the proliferation of social media sites means that the comparative advantage for blog writers has been moving towards depth, since on social media sites one-liners or short responses rule.

Online culture comments obsessively on itself. This is one such form of commentary, and it’s really about the way form tends to shape data—or, to use McLuhan’s often misunderstood formulation, the way medium affects message. There are many subtle gradations of online media, and I find the near-war between quasi social sites like Reddit and blogs to be fascinating.

The dislike on Reddit for blogs makes the discourse shallower and, to me, more boring. It’s too bad and also ensures that many people who do know a lot—who are experts—won’t bother going. If mods can kill a post that someone spent ten hours writing and editing, so that morons who could answer their own queries with a simple Google search can ask yet another inane question, why bother?

I’m being deliberately inflammatory in the preceding paragraph, but that’s what the situation deserves. People who know a lot will tend to avoid areas with a lot of novices or fools, and as novices grow into being experts, the fora that gave them their start will tend to be abandoned.

(Universities, incidentally, are usually too focused on depth at the expense of breadth and impact. They should focus more on rewarding impact, since much of the nominal “depth” in humanities departments if faux, but that’s another issue.)

I’m going to use Reddit as an example: most of the semi-specialized sub-Reddits, like the ones devoted to photography and writing, are only useful to absolute novices. Anyone who gets past that phase will get tired of the same basic questions and issues arising again and again. At the same time, those sections prevent or discourage users from posting their own material. Consequently, as users become more sophisticated, they drift away and gather their own audience, often in blogs or Flickr accounts or elsewhere. What’s left are a steady stream of novices, which is very useful when one is a novice but not at all useful when one outgrows the novice phase and wants to explore the deeper implications of a subject, art, or craft.

Comment when you have something to say

By now it’s well-known that most Internet forums devolve over time, even when the people running the forum take concrete steps to avoid devolution. But the main problem is not necessarily the trolls who deliberately attempt to degrade the quality of the conversation. It’s low-quality comments that aren’t necessarily malicious or even mean-spirited but do reflect shallow knowledge. Not only that, but such comments are often designed to appeal to groupish belief or to raise the status of the commenter, rather than sharing information and asking genuine questions.

Kens offered this insightful observation on HN:

My theory (based on many years of Usenet) is that there are three basic types of online participants: “cocktail party”, “scientific conference”, and “debate team”. In “cocktail party”, the participants are having an entertaining conversation and sharing anecdotes. In “scientific conference”, the participants are trying to increase knowledge and solve problems. In “debate team”, the participants are trying to prove their point is right.

Unfortunately, the people in scientific conference mode attract the cocktail people, but the latter don’t tend to attract the former. Debate team-types tend to be attracted to both—they’re the people exhibiting groupish and status-based behavior. In HN land, I’m probably closer to cocktail mode people than the scientific conference mode people, though I want to act more like a conference person.

Still, it’s worth looking more carefully at what the scientific conference-mode means. I don’t think scientific conference means a literal presentation of new results, but I think it does mean that the people commenting are deeply informed, deeply curious, reasonably respectful, and work to speak from a position of knowledge, rather than ignorance, about a subject. In this sense I fit the scientific conference mode when I discuss a small but real number of issues related to teaching, urban planning / development, and grant writing / government practices. The second one relates least to my day-to-day life but is a personal interest about which I’ve read a fair amount. Towards this end, I suspect a lot of people could improve the quality of the conversation simply by not commenting.

I distill this general idea to a simple behavior heuristic that might be valuable to others: don’t comment unless you have a special, unusual, or well-informed viewpoint. Many of my comments link to books and/or articles I’ve read that elaborate on whatever point I’m making or trying to make (here’s one example, linking to Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, and here’s another, citing Edward Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City; in response to the second, someone even said, “I got these books simply because of this recommendation,” which makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside). Some of the ideas contained in the books or articles I cite might be wrong or badly argued, but at least I’m basing my comments on something specific rather than some general philosophical point. Too many people argue based on first principles or unsourced speculation. The latter isn’t always bad; for example, someone might work in a field and know something deep and important about it without having a link to a specific discussion of the idea being discussed.

Many of my comments that don’t link to books or articles still deal with specific issues in which I have above average expertise, knowledge, or experience. This comment discusses how I deal with a student who asks a question relating solely to his or her individual issue in a large group without sounding like a jerk (I think, anyway), this comment is about a specific product I’ve used (the Unicomp Customizer), and this comment is about specificity in writing and thinking. Again, I might be wrong, but in each case I’m writing based on experience.

You can find some exceptions to the principles I’ve discussed above. You should ask logical or reasonable follow-up questions, especially if you’d like more information (here’s one sample; here’s another.) Succinct is often beautiful. Focus on genuine questions, rather than challenging people because their beliefs don’t match yours.

You don’t always have to follow these rules—I don’t—but if you’re debating about whether you should post a comment, you should probably err on the side of silence and not intruding on other people’s time. Unfortunately, the kind of people who most need such internal self-restraint are probably also the ones least likely to use it, and I doubt anything can be done to solve this problem, which seems like a variant of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Despite all this, I don’t see a solution to the fundamental problems, at least beyond the person at the margin who might read this and change his or her behavior slightly.

In other words, one can appeal to community rules and norms, or resort to meta-posts (like this one).* Such an appeal shouldn’t be done too often, or a community will spend more time discussing its own rules and norms than it does discussing and reading the material that should be the purpose of its existence (I last wrote a post like this in January; that January post still seems relevant, but I feel like enough time has passed and that I’ve observed enough behavior to make this post relevant too). But perhaps the occasional reminder will, as I said, help at the margins.

Oh, and the other rule for commenting? When you’re done with substantive content, stop.

* Granted, these kinds of posts and comments can make a community deteriorate. For example, there are a set of overly long comments by jsprink_banned and josteink that fail to distinguish between an argument and how the argument is presented: I suspect they’re unhappy with the mod functions mostly because they haven’t focused on how an argument is delivered. Civility counts for a lot, at all levels of debate; see, for example, Tyler Cowen’s comments on civility and Paul Krugman (and his comments on the limits of binary, good versus evil thinking in general).

There are also comments like this, in which the poster argues from nothing, attempts to activate an anti-corporate ideology, and ignores the obvious, abundant evidence of the continued importance of firms. Alex-C, fortunately, did reply: “I almost can’t tell if this comment came from some sort of Markov text generator.” HN used to have many fewer of those kinds of comments, and when it did get those kinds of comments, they were much less likely to rise. It takes more effort than it should for me not to respond to them directly. Incidentally, the comment Alex-C was replying to meant to say something like this.

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