Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Freaks to Flypaper

If there's ever been a better phrase to sum up the dark side of the internet, then please feel free to tell me. I can't claim credit for making this one up, it came my way in a comments column in the Guardian after a review of a particularly telling documentary about Tripadvisor.

It perfectly captures the phenomenon that the interweb has created. In among all the good things, every nutter in the world has suddenly found an outlet for their bent ideas, wonky assessments, crazed conspiracies, and endless, endless complaints. Nowhere is this last facet more readily available than the pages of Tripadvisor, whose corporate colours rather unfortunately are designed in green ink.

The programme was aired by Channel Four and typically modern in that you can't simply tell stories in broadcasting now, producers have to employ a few nutters to entertain as well (there are even casting directors for factual programmes). But what resonated in this one was the coincidence that Tripadvisor has become populated by nutters - there's plenty to choose from - as it's veered off the rails. So rather than just bringing a few 'characters' (the secret of success for 'Come Dine With Me') they simply looked in the reviews of the site itself. They're there - hundreds of them, if not thousands.

A decade ago, the idea was that Tripadvisor would 'democratise' travel , give ordinary people the right of reply and replace all those old people in pullovers on TV telling us how wonderful their holidays were. User generated content was going to improve things along the way in hotels too, make people sit up and take notice. Like most startups on the interweb it had high ideals and had it worked we'd all be very happy and Tripadvisor would not be the problem it is today, both for the industry and the owners.

The owners are the conglomerate Expedia, who dominate the travel bookings industry worldwide, and Tripadvisor, like its multitude of sibling sites, now operates around the world. The investment has been huge, the marketing spend intergalactic, the creation of the global brand unstinting. And of course that - rather than the owners themselves - is where the problems lie.

The drive to create the enormous traffic that makes Tripadvisor profitable exposed the central flaw, the unfettered release of cockeyed opinions about people's businesses. In addition, there are now countless instances of false reviews - you only have to look at the creation of Kwikchex and Ihatetripadvisor to see where this is going - and the green ink brigade now have a public forum for their incessant nitpicking letters of complaint. The TV Doc chose to show some fairly crazed hoteliers who didn't do themselves any favours by swearing about guests and crying on camera about the downfall of their lifework, but the main editorial thrust of the programme nailed the problem - a veritable tsunami of downright untrustworthy editorial matter, either written for profit or put together by mouth breathers.

The reaction in the Guardian was telling. Although one of the nutters actually wrote in defending himself (not very well I'm afraid) what was most revealing was the number of people commenting about 'their' Tripadvisor, offering tips on how to read it and how it's really dominated by ordinary people saying ordinary things. People Like Us.

The disconnect between what Tripadvisor has become and what those people think it is was quite startling. None of them seem to realise the extent to which writers are now employed to praise properties, translate into other languages, provide 'normal' descriptions which push the property up Tripadvisor's grading scale. None of them seemed to have paid much attention to the avalanche of complaints from property owners complaining that the poison pen stuff can very often be written by their rivals. The column did, remarkably, contain a few people who admitted to doing this (it's anonymous, like this 'ere blog) but there remains a large body of people who think it's one big happy family enterprise.

When it's not.