Tonight I attended a candlelight vigil for Mumbai at Boston’s City Hall. A few hundred people were there — more South Asian faces than I’d normally see in a Boston crowd, and other faces of all kinds. The service was sometimes muffled by the sounds of the city, but simply being among so many people and religious leaders of several faiths, holding candles in the comfort of a circle, felt good and meaningful.

At the bus stop next to the vigil, a bus pulled up. Along the top were images of coffee beans, an Indian man… it was an Incredible India ad. I tugged the sleeve of the man next to me, needing a witness. His eyes lit up.

After the service, I lined up to write my ‘message to Mumbai’ in a book provided by the organizers. Vigil for Mumbai, by my much taller friend, AlexisI quickly read a few other messages; they were long and heartfelt.

The attack upset me deeply. In trying to stay connected and inform my worry, I was surprised by how much the geographical distance actually mattered. The U.S. mainstream media — television, radio, and Internet — were blank. The Web provided pockets of information and corners for emotional togetherness, but searching for them became too much (though I did find a few sites I can turn to in the future).

Sometimes conversation isn’t useful, and images shouldn’t be processed alone. I am grateful to the organizers of tonight’s gathering for bringing people together, and giving us thoughtful people to listen to. I hope the people of Mumbai know just how much their loss of life and security has touched people so far away.

 

The day after I posted this essay on Yelp’s four-star leanings, I was reminded that Yelp, like all online communities, has its darker side.

While researching that previous essay, I came upon the listing of one of my all-time favorite stores. Filled with home decor, jewelry, and clothing, it’s the kind of gift shop where the gifts often end up being to myself. I’ve been there many times, and the owner has become a friendly acquaintance. I would have expected five stars — or four stars at least ;-) — but it had 3.5. Something was off: some reviews were simply untrue, even if one accounts for subjectivity. So I wrote my own review.

Soon after, I was wandering Boston’s North End, and inevitably made my way to this store. When I entered, the owner walked over to thank me for the nice review. I asked her about the bad ones, and a cloud descended. You know when you’ve been singled out for negativity and you don’t know why? You know that feeling of being misunderstood but not wanting to sound defensive or petty? That cloud.

For said reasons, the owner didn’t go into details. Basically, someone created multiple Yelp profiles and used them to bring down the store’s ratings. This reviewer also sent harassing messages to other reviewers and the owner herself. The owner said she contacted Yelp repeatedly, but the negative reviews remain. Knowing that it’s one person, and that this person has targeted other businesses as well, is little comfort to this store’s owner. Not only is it devastating to encounter unwarranted hostility, she worries about her store’s online reputation and, she said, her own personal safety.

We all know the Web is full of bad apples. Nothing new. But early on, we wrote this off as the downside of online anonymity. Now, Web pundits talk about how we are leaving anonymity behind, that our online and offline personas are merging into one, “authentic” identity (think Facebook).

But online identity is rarely verified. There are still fakers, and there are freaks. Young people are particularly vulnerable, as we know. But so are seasoned pros, like this blogger and these law students. Add some Google grease and the effects can be rough. Reputation management is a buzzphrase because real reputations are affected by online activities.

No one has figured out how to completely shield against the bad apples and the gamers, not even eBay. So while Yelp is not alone in hosting a community of good and bad, it could set itself apart by innovating ways to care for it. It’s not an impossible problem. It is irresponsible to invite people into a forum and then not moderate it well. And Yelp knows its power. The Business FAQ has some interesting moments, such as a warning not to “lash out” at negative reviewers or risk “vigilante justice” and a link to a First Amendment protection site for business owners considering a libel suit.

The conclusion from the previous post still holds: Online ratings systems can be useful and fun, but take them with a grain of salt. And, as in real life, trust the people you know more than those you don’t.

The other day, a friend asked if I knew anything about Aqua, a restaurant in San Francisco.

My response: “Don’t know it, but I’ll bet it gets 4 stars on Yelp.”

Sure enough, it does. How did I guess that? Because nearly everything I’ve searched for gets four stars on Yelp.

Of course, individual reviews vary. But I’ve always been curious about why listings in many star systems end up with nearly the same average rating over time. With Yelp, I became curious as to why these averages are so high. Looking first at the individual reviews, I saw some psychosocial reasons for this. The site encourages positivity by allowing you to tag other reviews as only Useful, Funny, or Cool. A typical search result on Yelp.com(More than once I’ve been tempted to write a review just to call someone else’s Really Dumb.) Reviewers sometimes compensate for a lackluster review with a higher number of stars. Some examples:

– “I’d easily give this place a 3 star [sic], but it gains one star for being the only place to get Sushi in Lincoln Square.” Four stars.

-“Not sure how the hostess sleeps at night with that gigantic stick lodged up her ass.” Four stars.

-“[T]he “scone” was so dry you could sand paint off the walls.” Four stars.

-“I have to say that the drinks I ordered were BAD. My Margarita was so sour and bitter that I had to return it. The vodka tonics must have been made with grade Z tonic water as it tasted like dirty soda water. I won’t even get into the dirty martini.” Four stars.

(Forgive me for taking these clips out of context, but it’s more fun that way.)

The prevalence of positive reviews might also be due to the site’s social networking element, which displays your (ostensibly) real name next to your reviews. Some of these people also get together in person. Do you really want to be the jerk who got all negative over an overcooked burger at the struggling mom-and-pop?

I initially surmised that many in the Yelp community had had those empowered childhoods where criticism was considered demoralizing.* But as I dug further into the reviews, I became impressed by their thoughtfulness. Which suggests another bias: People on Yelp — and elsewhere — tend to review places they like. Farhad Manjoo provides some supporting evidence so I don’t have to.

And yet, individual reviews are not the only cause of high average ratings: Yelp has built the bias into its search engine. At the category search level (e.g. sushi, bars, or salons), “best match” is a weak concept. Lots of results will be highly relevant to a search for sushi. So, what’s the secondary sorting logic? A combination of most reviewed, highest rated, and other special sauce criteria alluded to by a Yelp exec I once spoke with.

When you privilege the most reviewed, highest rated businesses, what happens? Logic indicates that the more reviews there are, the more likely things will average out… and in a community that evaluates matters of high subjectivity with a skew towards positivity, four stars is where the average will land. (Interestingly, All Songs Considered’s now-defunct Open Mic area had anonymous ratings. The song ratings all migrated to a similar average, but they landed more in the middle of the scale.)

In addition, the most reviewed will become more reviewed because they appear more often in the top search results, while the less reviewed will continue to lag. Weirdly, the result of this power law distribution is that Yelp falls behind the coolhunters. If Acme Grill had a moment in the spotlight 6 months ago and got tons of reviews, even when its popularity dies down, it will appear higher in Yelp search results than a newer, hipper thing. People will be more inclined to review it, and the situation is perpetuated.

I’ve long relied on word of mouth and online reviews to make purchase and entertainment decisions. When review communities first reached critical mass on Amazon, they paralyzed me. I treated any bad review, even when among other good ones, as a veto. By now, however, many of us have learned how to extract what’s useful. I’ve also come to understand that reviews are not just useful for consumers, but fun (and cathartic) for the reviewers to write. That said, Yelp does have a lot of influence, for better and worse. So it’s important to remember that a Yelp star is no Michelin (that’s not entirely a bad thing). And that all stars should be taken with a grain of salt.

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*There are likely other variances as well. Geographic, for example: People in the Washington, DC, area seem to me more faux polite than those in New England.

This morning a small truck drove past my window with a megaphone:

blah blah blah water blah don’t blah laundry blah blah blah

Hmmm. Sounded interesting. I went to the City of Cambridge Web site. Nothing. I called the Department of Public Works, and learned from a very nice lady that the Fire Department is flushing the fire hydrants and my water will be rusty. So I shouldn’t do laundry and I should run all my water when they’re done. She didn’t know exactly when, though.

She sounded surprised that I didn’t know, since the announcement was on “cable” (public access, perhaps?), and on the Water Department Web site (nope).

I don’t watch much TV, I certainly don’t watch public access (sorry guys), and I am not a regular visitor to the Water Department Web site. I do, however, go online a lot. A while back, I requested an RSS feed of city events and announcements, which they don’t currently have. I could set that feed to appear prominently on my Netvibes console.

That would be a start. But this just shows how poorly municipalities communicate with their citizens. What if there were an emergency? I remember one afternoon when the area went dark due to an underground electrical fire – I learned this from the ladies sitting outside across the street, who got their spotty info from a cop walking by. My hand-cranked radio was nice, but WBUR was reporting on Michael Jackson’s trial.

I’m not saying this communication problem is entirely the city’s fault. And I do appreciate that they send a man with a megaphone up and down the streets – that’s pretty frickin’ cool, even if you can’t understand what he’s saying.

It’s hard to think of an ideal pathway to communicate urgent information to a media-saturated, medium-divergent populace. Text messages could work as long as people’s numbers were well-guarded. But for now, at least update the Web site, for crying out loud!