Rachel del Valle | Everybody's a critic

Duly Noted | Yelp, I need somebody / Yelp, not just anybody / Yelp, you know I need someone / Yelp

· January 29, 2013, 12:07 am

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Rachel del Valle
Duly Noted

A few months ago, I ruined my glasses. I’d scratched the lenses and remembered the old DIY trick of smoothing toothpaste over the scratches to make them good as new.

I swear, I’d heard of this — you know, as a thing that people did. I wasn’t making it up. But every time I recount this story, I get puzzled looks, which makes me think I got the instructions jumbled somehow.

In the end, my home remedy didn’t work. Instead, it gave my lenses a permanent frost.

I was in London at the time and I didn’t know of any local opticians. My roommates were new to the city — I had no one to ask, nowhere to turn. So I did what anyone else would have done: I went on Yelp.

I scanned through all the local places. Some had detailed, positive reviews: “I popped in on a whim to have a gander at their frames ….” Others were more bare and straightforward: “criminally bad.”

I ended up choosing a place on Baker Street on the good faith of one review, in which the owner was described as “super-helpful.”

This is all I had to go on. The review was promising, but I was an American with a botched pair of eyeglasses, astigmatism and no sense of the cost of optical service outside my own country.

I walked in, prepared to be swindled.

Instead, in true English fashion and in lieu of smarmy service, I got a cup of tea while I waited.

The owner, who did prove to be “super-helpful,” introduced himself and asked how I’d found the place. “The internet,” I said, almost embarrassed, as if I were confessing to online dating.

After filling out a few forms and answering some questions, I had my eyes examined. I’d opted to have my old frames refitted, and my glasses were ready for pick up within four days. I was pleased. Score one for online reviews.

In many ways, sites like Yelp are good things. They allow good places to get business and not-so-great ones to improve. It’s a more egalitarian form of criticism than, say, the shopping or dining sections of New York magazine.

It’s good that there’s somewhere you can turn to and check out a place before you go. But that constant need to prescreen also discourages adventure.

If I had been more diligent about checking the reviews on a hostel I stayed at briefly in Barcelona, I wouldn’t have my checking-out-at-4 a.m.-because-of-bed-bugs story.

At that point, I had limited internet access and wasn’t able to Yelp my every decision. One look at the bite-covered Australians in the bathroom and I knew I’d chosen wrong.

My friend and I ran down to reception in our pajamas and got most, but not all, of our money back. They denied having bed bugs, or “chinches” as they called them among themselves in Spanish, thinking we couldn’t understand them. We spent the rest of the night in a hotel down the street.

Needless to say, as soon as I had access to a computer, I went on Hostelworld to write a scathing review.

I speak from experience when I say that mediocre or even pretty OK encounters with an establishment aren’t what inspire reviews.

More often than not, people only go out of their way to review things when they’ve had a really good experience or a really bad one. There’s no in between.

So maybe we should we be more skeptical of online reviewers because most of the time they’re little more than a username and a bit of an ego trip. If you want proof of this, try writing a review yourself — you’ll feel a sense of power like no other.

Or, you can take the road that hasn’t been reviewed (or only has one review, possibly with typos). Instead of letting the internet tell you where to go, what to do and how much you’ll enjoy doing it, go out and experience it for yourself. If it goes badly, at least you’ll have a good story.

Rachel del Valle is a College junior from Newark, N.J. Her email address is rdel@sas.upenn.edu. Follow her @rachelsdelvalle. “Duly Noted” appears every Tuesday.

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