There has been a lot of recent media attention, and general outrage around Facebook’s social plugins which essentially extend Facebook’s “Like” functionality to any website that installs the plugin, allowing Facebook users to share their likes and dislikes of products, services, movies etc, with their Facebook friends. I don’t want to address the myriad privacy issues that have swirled up tornado-like around this topic, but I do want to consider the implications of this technology, and the reviews and ratings increasingly available on websites; if there are increasingly no professional experts and we’re all the critics, what does this mean?
While one side of Crowdsourcing is giving everyone an equal creative voice, another side is allowing everyone to express their opinion through voting and commenting. The growing popularity of sites like Yelp, where everyday diners rate and write reviews of restaurants meals they’ve had, shows that there is both an appetite (pardon the pun) for expressing an opinion – not necessarily a huge surprise – and that there’s an equally large audience for those opinions. Certainly, when I’m considering patronizing a new restaurant, I’m as likely to bring up the Yelp iPhone application as I am to read a newspaper or magazine review. This phenomenon can be attributed to multiple factors; I think that people in the US are culturally less inclined to defer to authority than perhaps people in other countries are and so perhaps take the view of a professional critic, “what makes them such an expert?” But in addition, people do seem to intuitively grasp the Wisdom of Crowds: if you look at the critiques of enough people allowing for a wide enough spread of diversity and experiences, the odds are their collective opinion will be more accurate than one person’s, however knowledgeable that person is.
Of course, this is how the collective critique should happen in principle, but is this what happens in practice? I’m guessing that most people are like me and only bother to review restaurants where they’ve had a particularly amazing meal, or an astonishingly bad one. The meals that are just fine, but don’t fall at either end of the amazing/terrible spectrum I tend to not write-up. Maybe in the end, this doesn’t really skew the results and people reading the great and terrible reviews mentally average them out to come up with a balanced view of the restaurant or product. Whatever the truth of the matter, one thing is for sure: there are an increasing number of ways for the average person to share their view of a company’s products and services, from Amazon reviews and rankings of books and products to the new Facebook plug-in. Clearly, companies and consumers alike see a value in this form of Crowdsourcing and we will continue to move to place where everyone’s a critic.