i am a person who loves to explore. i consider myself a collector of experiences. some people have albums of stamps or shelves of china tea cups. i have friends who collect rare musical instruments and others who have sunk hours and dollars into the taxidermy trophies that bedeck their walls. me? i gather memories and embodied times of feeling unbelievably alive, alone in a completely unknown-to-me place.
the treat i give myself when i travel to speak is a day or two in the nearest big city. i love to wander, completely anonymously, around such cities looking for opportunities to experience the “normal.” i have lingered in my booth at an amish buffet, soaking up as much about the culture as possible from my 18 year old, newly married, recently “church-joined” server. i have stumbled upon concerts by bands i’d never hear any other way. i have stumbled upon political rallies and participated in improv everywhere events. one time i took a red eye just to buy myself 9 hours to race through washington d.c., trying to see as much as i could without stopping to eat or sit.
i am always rewarded by these adventures. always. even when i don’t feel like i find much of note, i consistently encounter kind souls and am given opportunities to truly see people who might be missed in their own environments. i have learned that museum docents are eager to share what they love about their cities. they are often, actually, quite astute about suggesting thoughtful places of beauty and complexity to experience music, food, and creative spaces that no guide book may ever direct me to. i’ve come to know that the best, and most authentic, ethnic food can often be found by asking the service folks i encounter or the people of color that i meet on the street. parks offer fantastic opportunities to get the real feel of families in the area and coffee shops in the business district (the old ones that have been there forever, not the ones donned with mermaids on their crest) provide excellent insight into the energy of the city.
recently i spent a couple of days in kansas city after a speaking gig in rural missouri. it was easy, in the small town i spoke in, to find where the locals ate. i simply drove through the small down town area and went in where all the cars were. i was rewarded with amazing food and fantastic conversation. in the big city, however, it isn’t often that straight forward. in light of this, i began my time in kansas city by visiting a restaurant that was highly reviewed online and that was far enough away from my hotel that i’d get a great overview of the city while i walked. seated and handed a menu, i did what i always do and asked my server to bring me what she thought i should have if i only had one shot at their food and was a vegetarian. immediately, i knew i had hit the jack pot. not only was this amazing woman working the floor that night but she also owned the restaurant. over the course of my meal sheri picked up on spoken and silent cues and ended up providing me with an itinerary of kansas city experiences i would have missed entirely if i would have used yelp as my only guide. she eschewed the highly rated vegetarian restaurants suggesting, instead, the oldest one in the city, citing i’d get a real feel of the culture by visiting this 20 year old establishment in the basement of the downtown unitarian church. she shared the history of the art museum and told me about the planes area in general. the next morning, prepped with her suggestions, i headed out to explore the city like a local. i spent hours in the amazing art museum (which i would have missed entirely had i relied on online suggestions for places to visit), stopped in at long established funky vintage shops, and ate at an indian restaurant that has ruined me, i fear forever, for samosas (more on that below).
before i left the restaurant i mentioned that i would be eternally glad that yelp had directed me to her and her fantastic establishment. by that point i was, quite literally, in tears, exhausted/exhilarated from the work of the days before and feeling gratitude for such a meaningful encounter and delectable meal. what followed surprised me. we launched into an involved discussion about online reviews and i found words for feelings i’ve had for quite some time.
gifts often come with curses. that which is helpful can often also hurt. ask anyone who’s particularly physically beautiful or brilliantly smart. i feel this way about online reviews. sites which aggregate people’s opinions about public spaces, experiences, or people come with positives and negatives. they offer a fine place to find out general ideas about quality, ambiance, and experiences and yet, at their core, they are deeply personal and lack the standards we normally apply for judging accuracy and quality. the internet offers boundless opportunities to disregard such standards, providing easy access to limitless opinions about everything we encounter. never mind if the reviewer is knowledgable or particularly suited to comment upon that which she reviews. don’t bother checking references as to an author’s credentials or knowledge base, if it’s found on the “reviews” tab it must be reliable.
we all know the tendency to want to plan ahead and make wise choices. we have, ourselves, or know someone who has, spent hours reading hints and tips about disneyland experiences in order to maximize a vacation. we pay attention to negative reviews and over-inflate the claims made in positive ones regarding places to stay and eat. there’s something powerful about knowing what to avoid and what to order and where all the “hip” reviewers are spending their time.
here’s the problem though: people who write reviews are just people who write reviews. it is not as though double blind, peer reviewed research has taken place in spaces such as yelp, trip advisor, or rate my professor.com. these are simply places within which personal bias and opinion reign supreme. reviews are written from emotionally charged experiences, positive or negative, and are frequently posted without editing even by those who post them. corrective experiences rarely get reflected later and, even if a reviewer does change their opinion, few take the time to remove old posts. someone suggesting avoidance of a restaurant because of their own terrible experience may be likely to have a terrible experience where ever they go. a student who posts an unfavorable review of a professor may do so to poison the pool of public opinion because of actions taken by the professor that the student simply didn’t like. a review that dishes on the ills of an establishment’s ambiance may be written by someone who only feels comfortable in rooms full of buzzing, overhead florescent lighting and free from all other commotion.
don’t get me wrong, i don’t believe that online reviews and the spaces that hold them are all bad. i am a firm believer that they can give some general ideas and jumping off points. they can even help clarify what kind of information might be helpful to collect before making choices about all manner of actions and experiences. they are not, however, sure fire paths to adventure, risk, experiences, or, even, quality. as much as they may exist for personal advice and direction, they also exist as receptacles of unfettered reactive opinion and, of this, we must be aware.
when my fabulous kansas city server, sheri, and i began speaking about reviews, she made a great point. “when we come to the table, after a guest has taken a few bites of their meal, and ask how everything is, THIS is the point i wish someone would register their review. if they did i could really show them what we’re about. that’s the point at which i can help their experience change. an online review gives me no opportunity like that.” this is so deeply thought provoking. writing a review out of our satisfaction or lack there of is so much easier than engaging with the people, in person, who are shaping our experiences. it’s vulnerable to say we aren’t really pleased. sometimes it’s equally vulnerable to say that the taste of the entree blew us away, the depth of the roast warmed us, or the feeling of the created space brought us deep peace. people might look at us funny. they might not know what to do or say. especially if we’re disappointed, we may be met with defensive annoyance or outright frustration. and yet, isn’t this what experience is about? taking risks and engaging in life in real and embodied ways.
i would not give a favorable review of the fried crickets i ate in thailand nor would i suggest that someone wanting a live-food based breakfast eat at the amazing local greasy spoon. i don’t choose hotels by the same guidelines as some of my more camping happy peers do. i don’t look to action film lovers for entertainment advice. even still, there’s something to be said for stretching myself into spaces i don’t normally inhabit. trying a restaurant that i would never imagine frequenting. listening to music or watching a movie that is completely out of my genre. going where the locals go rather than where the tourist books suggest. i would encourage everyone who visits thailand to try fried crickets. even though i hated them.
i would also encourage everyone who is tempted to write a negative review to sit on your words for a few hours (at the minimum). consider your motives. are you really hoping to help others make wise choices or are you wanting to punish someone for a way in which you felt mistreated by them? it’s so much easier to rant into the air than to bring forward respectfully constructed complaints face to face. perhaps consider this now so that the next time an experience begins to sour you might have the opportunity to register your “review” right then, when the situation might be remedy-able, rather than later when no one has the ability to make amends.
a recent tweet in my feed read, “remember that the review you’re reading on yelp was written by a person who writes reviews on yelp.” (@andylassner) this is my hope in writing this post. that we would all remember as we read, write, and/or consider the constant flood of evaluative comments rolling before our eyes that we are all human. we all do amazing things and stupid things, have successes and failures. and we all hope for grace amidst them all.
p.s. if you’re ever in kansas city, visit the brick. if you don’t feel adventurous enough to let sheri or her fine staff bring you what they think, no know, you’ll love, then order the veggie burger with roasted garlic goat cheese and grilled portabellas with sweet potato fries and an kansas city brewed ipa. also well worth a visit in k.c. are eden’s alley and chai shai. the handwritten chalkboard sign outside of chai shai claimed they serve the best samosas in the world and, right now, i am inclined to agree. in bolivar missouri, make sure and check out the main street for amazing mediterranian fare (and tell zach c i sent you) and el rodeo for the most melty cheese enchilada imaginable.