The Tyranny of the Yelp Reviewer – Thoughts on Responsibility

“Chef Michael Noble has had one of the most distinguished culinary careers ever for a chef. He is a multiple gold and bronze medal winner for Team Canada in several of the world culinary Olympics, former head chef of Catch (leading to the resto being awarded the Best New Restaurant award a…” – Dec 2010

Terry, not quite a renaissance man yet...

Terry, not quite a renaissance man yet…

Those were the words that began my journey into food reviews and blogging in the #YYC community. Since that time, I’ve co-founded a city-wide food event, became a bit of a fixture on Twitter and in person at certain restaurants, and have built a bit of a reputation as the go-to guy for restaurant choices. I’ve written well over 150+ restaurant and related market reviews, some serious and some especially whimsical (my TWO reviews of downtownfood are more than self-explanatory) and made friends at every stop ranging from the chefs (Darren Maclean of downtownfood, Duncan Ly of Yellow Door/Raw Bar, Dustin Schafer of Sky 360 etc), those who I call the established writers (Dan Clapson, Vincci Tsui, Linda Garson, etc) who make a living writing and working in the food industry, to the “next tier”, who are established in their own right but make their bread and butter in other industries. I’ve built a name that’s growing, and I’m honoured to know these people as they’re all fascinating, brilliant in their chosen arts, and passionate about their dedication to food and what I like to call #RealFood.

But while those words above started the journey, it was being awarded “Yelp Elite” status that gave me a voice on what I wrote about, and in some ways how to write even if I didn’t necessarily agree with the full structure. It’s a controversial review website, international in scope, with a structure and a power that in some places can make or break a business. As it’s the one I’ve been associated the longest, I’m going to start this week to give my friends and followers some understanding on the structure, and some thoughts on responsibilities that we all have to consider.

Yelp is basically a review website, with content written by the normal consumer (ideally). Literally 10s of thousands of reviews are written every day throughout the world, for the most part written by the average every day person, on virtually every known type of business from auto body shops to gourmet restaurants. Each reviewer is requested to give a star rating out of 5 (sorry, no 1/2 stars though Yelp really should allow that). The reviews are then analyzed by some special algorithm that tries to determine if it’s a valid review, a fake or even a deliberate attack. As a backup, there’s a small army of readers in San Francisco that reads the reviews themselves, and reviews can also be flagged by other Yelp reviewers. But there are 2 types of reviewers, the regular Yelp member and a smaller group designated as the Elite of which I am one.

Me in full Yelp Elite Mode in Yelp Sunglasses

Me in full Yelp Elite Mode in Yelp Sunglasses

What’s the difference between the two? Well, I’d like to say quality of writing and general integrity. A lot of the average Yelp writers tend to make a review about a few of their favorite places, or places that made an especial impression on them. Far more are what I call one-timers, that is they would write one or two reviews in all, all to help out their friend’s business, a popular local hangout, or in a lot of cases, to purposely attack to try to ruin a business with horrific stories, very often imaginary. A Yelp Elite will almost always write about their actual experience, especially engaged with their local community  and were selected for what appears in their writing and general personality to be honest overall (though occasionally incorrect). As such, especially as the Yelp Elite tend to be like a small percentage of the greater group, and highly sought for their opinions and reviews.

Now I will write a post on how the reviews are analyzed, how to write one and so on, but for now, I’m going to deal with one thing… what I like to call the Tyranny of the Yelper. Yelp, for better or worse, can seriously help or hurt certain businesses. In really depends on the nature of the business I find, but there have been actual published studies that back this up. As such, there have been offers by businesses to solicit a positive Yelp review from an Elite. Now this isn’t as prevalent in Canada as it is in the US, but there it is for all to see. The Yelpers, through social media, have an unprecedented amount of clout that otherwise didn’t exist 10 years ago. Bad word of mouth can always hurt a business, but through Yelp, it’s magnified a thousand fold in many instances.

Former food bloggers, the Calgary Foodies, were at one time the leading food blog in Calgary. But parenthood has superseded that passion understandably, and their site has since been shuttered. But I had contributed occasionally to their blog, including the review above about NoTAble’s Sunday Brunch, right up to a somewhat negative review I wrote about the last days of Mother Tucker’s in Calgary. It was never published, either on the Calgary Foodies’ site, or on my own.

When it was rejected, I looked at it myself, and then had a few friends’ read it as well. It wasn’t really a horrific review, just one where the age of the place was showing, and that for the very last Sunday Brunch sitting, it was pretty much without hoopla and protocol which was a bit saddening to see after such a long successful run. I never did ask Nolan, one of the foodies why it was never posted, but not too long after, he wrote a post himself about something he had learned himself, that just because you have a voice that people follow, it doesn’t mean it’s a voice that can be used as a hammer. A light flickered on in my head when I read that, and while my review wasn’t one that was slamming a hammer onto a business, it was one that was still negative in tone.

The Yelp Elite, and reviewers in general, have a voice that can do genuine harm to genuine people. A review about a bad experience in a restaurant could be the difference between a mom and pop shop being able to make the rent or shutter the doors. As my fellow blogger and friend, Wanda or @momwhoneedswine likes to state, Everyone could have an off day, or a bad experience. I’ve had some so-so dishes at my favorite places, poor service at my mechanic and so on, but this is something that should be expressed there and then WHILE you’re having that experience to give that business a chance to correct a perceived wrong. Your steak was underdone? Ask them to re-fire it. You don’t think your barber did a good job with your cut. Ask them to touch it up. But do it WHILE you’re having that experience.

Here’s where responsibility comes into play. Too many of us Yelpers and reviewers stay silent about a bad experience, and then take it out brutally on the business in a review afterwards. Again, if honest, a bad experience is a bad experience and if honest, should be reported, but should be done with the knowledge of the potential impact. I’ve admittedly written some pretty bad reviews as well myself, but no one can state that I didn’t at least try to give the business a chance to correct the issue. If the business still went out of their way to be complete jerks, well, so be it. But I’d like to remind everyone that we Yelp reviewers have a power to actually hurt people in real terms. This is our city, and I do my best to support it as best I can. I’d like to challenge the reviewers who are writing something negative that:

1) is the city really better with the loss of this business? Did I try to give them a chance to make amends?

2) depending on the nature and size of the business, am I crushing someone’s dreams? Do I really want to be the cause of the destruction of this venture?

In the 80s, an obituary of a legendary Montreal food writer had stated that she, over the years, deliberately shelved many a review of restaurants because while the experience may have been poor in execution, she knew that to publish a poor review would bankrupt that mom and pop business. I never understood why until I became reasonably well-known in the YYC Food community. There are so many that are literally struggling day-to-day, but have proceeded anyways because it was their dream.  I ask, unless it was truly a horrific experience, hold off. Give them a little time. Try them again.

To my fellow Yelp reviewers, especially the Elite, and to reviewers of YYC in general, I know many of you already keep this in mind. But there are so so many of us that don’t.

Next week, I’ll explain the Yelp review model, my thoughts on how it works and the pluses and minuses.

A Quickie On My “Imaginary” Wife – Is He or Isn’t He?

Not too long ago, I had an amusing little triple event the same week, all revolving around my marital status:

– One person had “discovered” I was married through careful analysis of my social media profiles on Twitter and Facebook and later joked about it with my wife at a work social event;

– Another was dead certain I was Single and asked me out;

– and EVERONE else who knew I was at least dating were wondering if my galpal even existed or was she imaginary;

Well, let me get this clear once and for all, though I have to break one of the rules imposed on me and state: Yes I AM Married, and happily so since 2010.

A Quote about The Secret Wife from Conan O'Brian

A Quote about The Secret Wife from Conan O’Brian

There’s never really been any kind of serious secrecy about it, but I do understand the confusion. And worse, because certain OTHER rules that are ABSOLUTE have been imposed on me, some friends might still think my wife is imaginary. So here’s the rules:

1) My wife, hereon stated as “galpal”, does NOT want to be part of my social media circle. She likes people, but hates being the outsider when everyone starts talking about this account or that SEO technique or whatever. So understandably, she is almost never around at any event and doesn’t want to be talked about or even mentioned as well. In fact, she removed her FB page to ensure her virtual privacy and has virtually never touched her Twitter… (set up by me long ago to just reserve her name at the least). Strangely enough, since she knows me to be a bit of a flirt at times, she’s totally at ease with having 2/3 of my friends and work associates to be female.

2) I am to post NO photos of her on FB or Twitter or whatever. Anyone who’s a close enough friend is allowed to see what few photos there are of her on my FB page, which all date over 2 years or more.

I already posted this one in 2007 long ago... so hopefully this doesn't break the new pics law

I already posted this one in 2007 long ago… so hopefully this doesn’t break the new pics law

As such, this blog post is breaking rule #1 right now, but I think this is for a good purpose. Seeing as I don’t wear my ring either (just hate wearing jewelry) and I literally don’t talk about her out of habit now these days, not to mention referring her as “galpal” or not at all, well, you can see why I pretty much show up on my lonesome most times.

So just making this quickie note to my really wide circle of foodies, social media pals and so on who are still wondering to clarify things.

And nope. No new pictures. If you’re a close enough friend or associate, and really want to satisfy your curiosity, friend me on Facebook. Check out my pics in 2010.

Just to let you know, to break that rule is literally a fatalistic action. After all, she knows the exact lethal food allergies I have. Knowing she can take me out anytime… well…

Adventures in the Spy Biz: Reflection on the Final Days

Seven years. I’ve been involved in the Spy business for 7 years, and it comes to a relative end in 2 weeks.

Image

Always watching through the windows when you least expect it

In 7 years, I’ve been involved in at least 4-5 police investigations involving murder, assault or kidnappings. I’ve assisted in a number of child abuse cases, or at least made it possible for the parent to do the work themselves. I’ve helped prevent at least 2 child abductions, and helped family members find out if their son or daughter was into drugs, planning secret parties or being cyber-bullied. As for infidelity or other stuff, I can’t even begin to count the number of cases I’ve either directly or indirectly been involved in.

In the end, as my time here comes to an end (not 100% immediately, I’ll still do the odd case or two or assist with my successor to complete existing contracts that started in my time), I wonder what did I learn?

Well, the first thing is… unless you work for a corporation or contracted to one, it’s not exactly the most glamorous job in the world. For every interesting case involving police work, there are 10 jobs involving husbands or wives cheating. It’s not so much James Bond as it’s the cheekier side of Magnum PI. In my last entry under “Adventures”, there tended to be a lot of times that would involve long hours watching a hotel or sneaking around a place in the middle of the night to plant tracking devices, cameras and the like.

Next, you find out that Hollywood has completely misconstrued everything to be a world where there are tracking devices the size of sugar cubes that work around the world and need absolutely zero power. For example, those wireless portable cameras that Lisbeth uses in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”. How the hell did those cameras operate? Battery power on wireless cameras work for a matter of HOURS, not days, not weeks as suggested. If they applied the real rules, then the cameras would have run out of power long ago and her journalist friend would have been murdered. There’s Hollywood, and the laws of physics. I would bet on those laws every day. One special note though, the tools and the gear has improved a lot though, even from when I first started my work.

Finally, there’s always an anterior motive. It doesn’t matter who and what case, there always is one. I won’t comment on the Police ones out of respect to the inspectors who have a hard enough time as it is, but there have been too many cases from other Private Investigators and the public at large to not have seen this. I’ve found that without knowing that motive, a client’s case would linger for weeks, even months. I’ve had cases go for over 5 years because I was directed to look in one direction without knowing the other. Sure they pay well, but you just want to have the closure eventually.

So, as my time comes soon to an end, I wonder, was it worth it? I know that a huge chunk of my soul has been bruised in ways that I can never describe. The look of horror of that woman when she found out how her child was being drugged. The knowledge that no matter what I do, often the client refuses to help themselves and endure unspeakable abuse. The regular disappointments by occasional clients that despite retrieving what they needed, they lack the courage to take it that last step. But in the end, I think yes. Despite what my family and friends who disapproved of the job, in the end, I can honestly say that I was in a position to help far more than most. That’ll be the thought that will follow me.

But if I’m so melancholy of the time I spent as a spy of sorts, how did I manage for so long? People in Calgary know me as a social media person, a regarded foodie and Calgary booster. That description probably fits me well, but little do people know that all of this wasn’t just me being a particularly involved with things, it was my life line. While the infidelity stuff can be funny, more often than not, it was simply tragic. It’s a world where there are legions of broken hearts, misplaced anger and residual damage in the lives any children involved. I needed the social media world, a dynamic arena of minds and spirits the world over to keep me engaged with the brighter parts of life. I needed to be a foodie, not simply because I truly enjoy good food and the passions involved with cooking, but to give me a means to brighten the horizons of others through the simple communion of a shared meal. As for being a Calgary booster, that was easy. For every one case I dealt with, there were 100 Calgarians making the lives of one another a better place. If anything, the people of Calgary bring me hope that there are happy families out there, lovers enjoying the simple joys and artists creating art and music. To this incredible city, thank you, and I promise to continue to serve.

The State of Terry 2013: Taking Stock… One Hell of a Year

Wow.  43. I’m surprised I made it.

In this year, I’ve hit some pretty interesting milestones, some that were kinda expected, but most that had blindsided me entirely. Most have been a true honour to have accomplished or achieved, and some are still pending. But as is, it’s probably going to be one of the most memorable as life goes.

This year:

– After years of dragon boating (I started in my late 20s!!!), my team, The Red Eyes Paddling Club, has finally come out into it’s own, and has taken a festival outright. No consolation, B, C, D, E or whatever… it’s a clear outright win.  Only a few weeks later, we followed up with that by being clearly the Bronze winner in another. Incredible.

– I’ve taken the social media lessons I learned the summer of 2012 and ran with it. I’ve always been comfortable as being a relatively altruistic type of person, but usually in the shadows. With social media, those same actions have led me into a whole new world where I can actually influence opinion and help on a scale I never could have reached before. (Yes, it’s probably a bit narcissistic as well, but damn it, to me if whatever I can do can genuinely have an impact, then why not.)

– Employment… well… I’m still here at Spy, though I’ve long since branched out into investigations. The difference before was that in the past, I did the work based purely on the odd occasional referral. Now I get regular requests for P.I. stuff all the time (I still pick and choose though).

– YYC Burger Week – now THAT was a hell of an experience. One of the co-founders of an honest to goodness city-wide festival! I had 3 tv appearances while the big brain herself, Sabahat, had 2 tv ones and a bunch of newspaper and radio ones as well. More importantly, we raised over $7000, sold over 6000 burgers, and gave 16 charities and restaurants a ton of free publicity. I’m seriously looking forward to year 2.

– Health – well, there’s always a sword of Damocles out there, but at least I managed to avoid any outright serious illnesses this year thus far. I could be writing this a bit early, but for now, it’ll do.

– Connections – this is a bit related to Social Media, but I’m shocked by the number of connections I’ve made over the year. Honoured with the ING ambassador scarf again, still a Yelp Elite, a member of Awesome Foundation – Calgary’s task force (during the floods) and more, I’m an actual known quantity in the city. And a number of my peers paid me the best compliment ever… that I represent the best that is in Calgary. I was, and still floored by the compliment. There’s quite a few I would say who are far more deserving, but it’s something I hold quite dear to my heart in many ways. As is, it’s inspired me to reach out even more into the Calgary sphere. It’s also inspired my writing, my blog and my new position as the Stories From Our Streets editor of Calgary is Awesome.com.

– Discovery – this was the first year I truly felt that I came out into my own.  In one way, it meant that after so many many years of aspiring to be a knight, this is probably the first year I truly feel I am. There was a classic line that I always took to heart, “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good to stay silent.”  Well, once and for all, I took a stand against everything I was against in one way or another…. so much so, that I was described as an activist even.  Unfortunately, as I know it caused pain to my family, it also included one final affirmation against what I perceive to be a form of injustice in one controversial HUGE aspect of my life… I rejected religion once and for all, and declared that I am an athiest. From pretty staunch beliefs as a Catholic to a 32 yr journey (starting from the sacrement of Confirmation) to secular humanism, for the first time in decades, I honestly ceased to hate myself in a lot of ways. And in this, I found a new found freedom that I never expected.

– the Floods and Home – Despite living here for 10 years, the floods have shown me for the first time that I truly am home. The pure sentiment of other Calgarians trying to help is something I still can’t forget, and still haunts me today. But, Calgary is truly my home, and I want to do my best to help others aspire to that ideal.

And last and definately not least….

– Terry and Georgia. I still have to keep a lot of info about them under wraps, as I want them to have as much of a normal private life as possible. Right now, my readers of their tale number into the hundreds, but as this story unfolds still, it can possibly explode into far far more. All of the anger, sorrow, loss and tears that came from my very odd relationship with my 1st true love, has developed into a new family dynamic, where I get to try my hand at something very new… fatherhood. I’ll never have my chance to be a father with my own kids, but with T & G, I’ve learned that there are different types of parents and different types of familial love. They’re both still young, and they’re learning the mistakes I made. There’s some even bigger revelations which is coming in the next “New Frontiers”, one that I’ve been afforded a singular honour that I embrace wholeheartedly. And as the years go by, and as they eventually will be revealed to the world entire as my “kids”, I can only look forward to the time to come.

So that was the year that was.  As for the year to come?

I’ve got a huge decision coming up. 2014 will be a very different year for me as I’ve found my true passion… one that I plan to follow.  Life with progress with YYC burger week, and me growing and evolving in Calgary life… but for now, it’s a story that will be written with every morning breath.

To my friends, family, and my ever patient gal WK…. it’s going to be a bumpy ride. But with all of you alongside, I wouldn’t have it any other way.