Like I’ve said before, I think the internet is one of the most useful tools mankind has ever invented, along with fire-on-demand and Scotch whiskey. I was talking with a coworker the other day about how the internet has changed the way people think and interact. We can literally conjure the solution to any problem in a matter of seconds. Does everyone realize how amazing that is?
When I was growing up, if you needed a solution to a problem, you pretty much had to—gasp!—ask someone. It didn’t matter how detailed, trivial, or awkward the question was. You had to involve another party. The only alternative was to decode the antiquated Dewey Decimal System at your local library (or the library in the next town, if your question was embarrassing) and thumb through several books in the hope that at least one paragraph among hundreds would reference whatever problem you were working on.
I’m in my mid-30s, so we’re talking about a seismic shift in information gathering, problem-solving, and human relations, all in the span of one generation. That’s nothing short of miraculous. The internet has made it all possible, search has made it all navigable, and social media has made it all personal.
I recently wrote on my professional blog that, “in a way, the shift toward social media is like a shift back to a sort of Rockwellian community where everyone shares everything.” That kind of sharing is evident in the wisdom of crowds phenomenon, or, as Glenn Reynolds termed it, an “Army of Davids.” We’ve reached a point where the power of brands and the testimonials of friends pale in comparison to the aggregate reviews of strangers. We use their ratings to inform our decisions on which products to buy, which hotel rooms to book, and which restaurants to patronize. Industry now follows the herd instead of leading of it. This is a bold, new reality, and it’s truly empowering.
We’ve ingratiated this new phenomenon into all aspects of our lives. I’ve come to rely on it so much that I get really annoyed when the crowd abandons the unwritten rules of the herd and fails to properly assign value to things. This usually happens when passion, arrogance, and tribalism enter the equation. I want to keep this rant above the fray, so I won’t get into examples of ‘crowd fail’ in particularly polarizing arenas. The one area I will reference is a personal pet-peeve of mine; online recipes.
When people rate a product on Amazon or a service on Angie’s List, they issue a quick judgement and visualize that judgement with a rating of some sort. The gold star rating is commonly accepted and is usually very easily understood. Five stars is great. Four stars is good. Three stars is okay, with room for improvement. Two stars is poor. One star is as bad as it gets. This isn’t difficult stuff. So why is it that with online recipes, people rate something as five-star and then go on to list all of the changes they made? If they didn’t make the recipe, then why are they rating the recipe? Moreover, why are they rating an obviously deficient recipe as great?
Let’s say you’re looking for a recipe for chicken enchiladas. This is a typical rating and comment from AllRecipes:
And here’s an example from Epicurious, where they use a fork rating system instead of stars:
These are not outliers. Scroll through the comments and you’ll see that almost all of them are like this. Click on any other recipe and you’ll see the same pattern. It’s a systemic problem.
What is going on here?
Why is this commonly practiced by individual commenters? Why is it accepted by the crowd? Are these people just flaunting their own creativity? If so, why are they rating an imperfect recipe as perfect? Why not rate it three stars and then list the steps they think are necessary to elevate it?
This doesn’t make any sense to me. I can understand substituting one or two ingredients out of convenience or necessity and then being surprisingly pleased with the dish. But if you fundamentally rework the dish and then go on to give it five stars, you’re rating the wrong recipe, aren’t you? Shouldn’t you enter your variation of the dish as a new recipe and let the crowd determine its value?
You don’t really see this anywhere else.
Imagine if you were checking out an HDTV on Amazon and all of the commenters rated it as great. Must be a good TV, right? And then you read through the reviews and see that everyone had to jury-rig it to make it work. You’d think, “well, this TV obviously sucks.”
Why is it different with cooking?
Everyone is entitled to their own personal taste, but a dish either works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work, then don’t rate it five stars. All that I come away with after reading these kinds of reviews is that a particular recipe is “SUPERB!!!,” but only if you don’t actually follow the recipe.