Céleste Clipp English 109S April 22, 2011
Just a few months ago, I found myself on a somewhat impromptu trip to Puerto Rico, prepared to soak in whatever culture, food, and sights I could in the short span of five days.
My companion and I had no prior knowledge of the area, nor did we come prepared with tourbooks or a Lonely Planet guide – but we did, however, have an iPhone.
Stomachs grumbling after a long day of travel, we needed to find a suitable spot for our first dinner.
Rather than wandering aimlessly and selecting a restaurant at random, we did what any pair of tech-savvy 20-somethings would do: pull up a travel app and search for the best restaurants within a few miles of our location.
The top ranked restaurant on TripAdvisor boasted over a hundred 5-star reviews, all raving about the local fare, and particularly, the house specialty – shrimp ceviche.
We were being guided by the combined opinions of hundreds of fellow travelers who had come before us.
After a short walk, we arrived at our destination to find it packed with activity – backpackers, families, and older couples filled every table, and we were told there would be a 30 minute wait.
By this point, we were positively ravenous, and opted instead to walk to the restaurant next door, vowing to return to our original choice the following night.
As soon as our food had arrived, we were pleasantly surprised. The gritty, dimly lit restaurant, sparsely populated with local diners, had not exactly given us high hopes for the meal we were about to be served.
We shared several succulent dishes: shrimp mofongo and arroz con gandules, both Puerto Rican specialties; fresh fish topped in mango salsa; fried plantains; a tresleches dessert.
Yes, I can still remember every single plate – it was just that good.
The following evening, we returned to our original, top-ranked restaurant choice.
We set off early to secure immediate seating, armed with the confident expectation that our meal would match or even top the experience from the night before.
It wasn’t that our food was bad – in fact, it was perfectly enjoyable.
The menu featured few truly local dishes, with many options catering directly to an American demographic.
And why was it that the truly extraordinary restaurant next door didn’t even crack the top 20 reviews?
Consumer reviews and ratings have become commonplace in just about every industry imaginable:
In the past, consumers made decisions based on traditional advertising and the opinions of family, friends, and established critics.
More recently, the communal nature of the Internet has led to the proliferation of websites that aggregate reviews and ratings, allowing an individual to make choices based on the experiences of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of strangers.
Rather than relying on one or two subjective opinions or deceitful marketing schemes, consumers are given a transparent representation of the available options.
This concept relates directly to the theories postulated in The Wisdom of Crowds, a popular 2004 book by New York Times columnist James Surowiecki, who writes that “under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.”