Can user-generated restaurant reviews be more accurate than those by the pros?
A new bar and restaurant are opening in a fancy hotel. Trays of cocktails are whizzing about. A delicious buffet awaits as uniformed public relations officers smile and greet “distinguished members of the press.” Who else is on the guest list? Bloggers of course, the new tastemakers when it comes to Bangkok’s wining and dining scene. But just as they gain respectability, bloggers could be on the fast track to becoming “old media.” Bangkok is the world’s number one city in terms of Facebook users—and one of the most serious when it comes to food. Put the two together and you have a potent crowdsourcing combination that could knock out both print and bloggers. As user-generated websites like OpenRice.com and Wongnai.com gain followers, we speak to the old new media and the new new media on the shifting digital food divide.
Print media reviews in Bangkok have never had quite the same aura as in other world capitals. Here, reviews appearing in print are either for newly-opened venues or promotional stunts (visiting chefs, new menus, etc.) at five-star hotels. They’re always hosted by the owner or public relations person, who lavishes attention on the writer, and the resulting critique is always positive. Even respected food writers like M.L. Tanudsri and his family avoid criticism, preferring to inspire and educate instead.This dearth of useful food reviews paved the way for bloggers to fill the gap—but even they have been reluctant to slam venues.
“I don’t usually write negative reviews. I used to think that if the restaurants are not good enough, I should tell people. But then, at the end, some customers always go to those restaurants I don’t like. So I think it’s very subjective and really up to the individual. We never know if we visit a restaurant on its bad day or not. So if I don’t think it’s good, I wouldn’t write about it at all,” says Sirin Wongpanit, a freelance writer for The Nation, Elle Decoration and Circle Publishing who also blogs at www.ohsirin.com.
“Food is one of the most difficult things to review since whether or not something is delicious is so subjective,” says Daneeya Bunnag, who blogs at mysousvidelife.wordpress.com. Pete Oh, of bangkokburgerblog.com, confirms that reviewers rarely take risks: “Most are in the middle of the road. Especially for publications, it could be bad for their business. You have to draw the line between good and bad places but sometimes people are a little sensitive about places they like. But my reviews aren’t meant to be mean. I don’t want to hurt any business and I always say that it’s really subjective. Everyone is opinionated about something and disagreement is fine.”
Ichiro Phongthon, of phongthon.blogspot.com warns of the risks of writing bad reviews, too. “A negative review is one thing, but slamming a venue or chef could damage your credibility,” he says, although he does still regularly write negative reviews.
Ironically, bloggers are now falling back on the same arguments print media once used to defend against bloggers, to defend themselves against the new wave of food critics: the crowds powering user-generated websites like OpenRice.com and Wongnai.com. In short, bloggers consider themselves more professional, while the “crowds” really don’t know what they’re talking about.
“Being a good food reviewer takes lots of eating experiences. You have to know what is really delicious and what cuisines you’re not familiar with,” says Sirin. “My style of writing is the result of the information that I’ve been accumulating all my life. But when I check out crowd-sourced reviews, it’s quite hard to get the real substance from what they’re writing”.
As for Ishiro, he finds that crowd-sourced reviews can be excessive in their negativity: “Today, you can see it in a lot of forums, like Pantip. It’s not really civilized sometimes.”
For Daneeya, of blog My Sous-Vide Life, the print-blog rapprochement is further accelerated by the growing number of bloggers getting paid and entering traditional media. “I don’t really know where to draw the line,” she says. “But the clear difference between professionals and amateurs lies in the knowledge and experience, be it in the traditional or social media fields,” says Daneeya. Khetsirin Pholdhampa, a food writer at The Nation, uses the same argument to defend against the social media hordes: “Everybody can write. But we tell a better story in print, one that is fair, balanced and comprehensive. We’re a reliable source of information.”
Feeding the Masses
Whether bloggers will become more professional, or just be swept away by the social media tidal wave, crowd-sourcing is here to stay. Yod Chinsupakul, co-founder of Wongnai.com, a user-generated review guide, says his users grew from 50,000 in 2011 to 100,000 this year. “Social media has brought more channels for people to speak up. You might have just told your friends in the past that this restaurant is good or bad, but today, sites and apps like Facebook, Wongnai, Pantip and blogs allow you to reach a broader audience.”
Wongnai is about to be joined by another player. Openrice.com launched in Thailand a few months ago, and all set for its official debut. Managing Director Satinee Mokaves says, “Bangkokians’ lifestyles are changing because with mobile devices, whatever they do, they will share it online.”
Even crowd-sourced websites are struggling with Thailand’s reluctance to write useful reviews, though. “Openrice in Hong Kong is a very strong institution. We have no competitor there and it seems to be part of their life to review restaurants. I’ll have to say that the Thai character is very different. [Thais] just post photos, as a kind of way to show off, and it’s really difficult to change that attitude.” While she tries to encourage people to be more opinionated, she also believes it will take time to change the mentality: “It’s going to be better with the new generation. They’ll have been exposed to more things and will be able to share something more critical and not just post photos.”
Ichiro concurs. “All they [reviewers on crowdsourced websites] write is ‘Oh, it’s really good. We licked our plates clean.’ And then top it off with loads of photos,” he says. OpenRice’s Satinee adds, “It’s not easy to get them to write something [critical] unless they’re really pissed off, which usually ends up being too personal.”
Bangkok Burger Blog’s Pete Oh doesn’t mind the competition or lack of professionalism, though. “It’s just giving people more rounded perspectives on particular restaurants. But it’s through the eyes of the readers. I don’t think blogs or websites are taking away from each other’s readerships.”
Even Wongnai co-founder Yod has advice for those using his website: “Whatever you read, you need to think critically and use your judgment. Think carefully and look carefully—like on our website, you’ll see many eateries have got four or five stars, but you need to look at the details, not just the surface.”