The Influence of the People

Posted by R.K. Gella

The American public called for change on Tuesday, strike that, they vehemently and overwhelmingly demanded change, and regardless of party lines, the night was a portrait of the democratic process at its best.

In many aspects it showed evolution, and in others, not to be contrary, it showed a throwback.

Evolution was not solely witnessed with the outcome, in the resulting decision, but in the process taken to get us there.  Obama, McCain, Clinton, Huckabee; each of these candidates utilized online networking (Facebook, MySpace) to a capacity unseen in any other presidential election.  In the end, President-elect Obama attributed a great deal of his success to grassroots campaigning and old school practices of working from within the communities and involving its citizens – a throwback indeed.  Via his methods his supporters were given a voice and a stake in their future.

For most (I’ll go out on a limb here and prescribe it as most) the chance to rattle off our opinions is an opportunity seldom declined.  The chance to be involved, outright and obvious, unshackled from anonymity, in a community of peers and spectators is a phenomenon that has captivated the online world.

It is indeed true that “everyone is a critic”, as online communities penetrate the outside world.

Earlier this week, the New York Times ran a piece entitled “Eat and Tell”, discussing the magnitude of online foodie communities such as City Search, Chowhound, and the increasingly growing Yelp.

“With 4 million reviews written and 15 million visitors a month, Yelp is a growing force in the food-obsessed corners of the Web.”  However, online service and nimble fingers are the only required credentials here, so how much of an impact can Yelp reviewers really have on the restaurant industry?  (Especially when Thomas Keller swears he never heard of Yelpers.)

Paul Kahan, the chef and an owner of Blackbird, Avec and the Publican in Chicago, became known there for complaining that sites like Yelp were “a forum for people who don’t necessarily know what they’re talking about.”

But, he conceded in an interview, the sheer volume of amateur opinion is useful. Any reader who struggled through 20 to 30 Yelp reviews of one of his restaurants, he said, “would get a fair impression of it.”

As for legit reviews, details lay secondary in opposition to amassing volume with personality and flair.

For example, Megan Cress — known online as Megan C. of New York — has been Yelp Elite for three years running. She has written more than 300 restaurant reviews (95 of them “firsts,” posted before anyone else). She has 957 friends and 151 fans on the site.

(By contrast, a New York Times restaurant critic might take six years to amass 300 reviews. The critic visits a restaurant several times, strives for anonymity and tries to sample every dish on the menu. Whether he or she has any friends is not recorded.)

Ms. Cress “networks for a living,” she said, introducing people and companies for a finder’s fee. Yelping helps; people who like her reviews often send her e-mail messages, and she decides whether answering them would be useful or fun.

There is a gain in confidence within the general public that their opinions have the same validity and affect, as any critic, pundit, politician, restaurateur, or chef, whether the opinions be factually/intellectually/mentally accredited or not.  This confidence should be encouraged and these opinions welcomed, with the realization that in the end it comes back to the general public to decide whether these opinions have any merit on our landscape.

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