Friday, July 8, 2011

Still Life with Robin: Badges

by Peggy Robin

“Badges!? We don’t have to show you any steenking badges” is a famous line from The Treasure of Sierra Madre, said by the bandit chief, who’s posing as a government agent, after he was challenged to to show his credentials. The point is, people like to see a badge, and if you really have one, you’re expected to show it to them.

Well, I have a badge. It identifies me as a “Senior Reviewer” for Trip Advisor. I earned this badge by having submitted my 20th review of a hotel or restaurant. I’ve been submitting write-ups of the various accommodations and dining experiences along my travels since 2009 -- but only sporadically. Initially, I was motivated to do so only when I stayed someplace based on its positive Trip Advisor ratings and was either so delighted with the choice that I wanted to add my voice to the chorus of praise, or so disappointed that I wanted to correct the record and prevent others from being similarly misled. So in two years of Trip Advisor membership, I had submitted just eleven reviews.

That’s when Trip Advisor notified me that if I sent in five more reviews, I would get a green star by my name and be dubbed “Senior Reviewer.” For reasons that I’m still mulling over, this was so appealing to me that I jumped to the website and in rapid order churned out five reviews of my favorite neighborhood restaurants. I got to boost some local businesses and help them attract new customer while bumping myself up to the next level in Trip Advisor’s hierarchy.

But, honestly, why should I care if I have a bright green star with a yellow outline, or a pale green star, or no star at all beside my name? That’s what I’m trying to puzzle out. When reading reviews by other travelers, I’ve never once stopped to notice if they are “Senior Reviewers” or “Destination Experts” or not a rated reviewer at all. Before making a decision to stay at a hotel, I like to read over the last dozen or so reviews, but it’s the substance and the tone of the review that carries weight with me, not the Trip-Advisor-conferred status of the reviewer. No matter how the writer is tagged, I will mentally discard anything that sounds suspiciously gushy or too promotional in nature. (Shilling is an endemic problem on all consumer review sites, even those that require registration with a real name.) I also discount reviews that are so intensely negative they must be from someone with an ax to grind against the place. I put my stock in reviews that sound to me like something a person would actually say in real life, if I happened to me that person and say, “So, how was your trip to …?”

So, if the badges don’t matter, why was I so eager to get one? That, I think, is a largely matter of conditioned response. It works especially well on those of us who went to elementary schools and preschools that gave out stars for this or that “accomplishment.” Like keeping a neatly organized cubby. Or reading X number of books on the Summer Reading Ladder. Sometimes the stars motivate kids to do something challenging and worthwhile, but in some cases they may be given out for not very well-thought-out reasons, like having perfect attendance. (A little digression: I have never understood why schools are so big on rewards for just showing up, especially when it means that a feverish or contagious kid may show up at school to stay in the running for the perfect attendance prize.) The point is, we learn early on that it’s good to get stars, or badges, or titles, so much so that we don’t always stop to consider whether the prize itself is worth the effort, or the title is gibberish, or the badges are mere flashes in the great pan of cyberspace.

Because these incentives work so well, they’re found everywhere. Amazon keeps lists of its top reviewers, though the credibility of that list was much shaken by the results of a study by Cornell professor Trevor Pinch revealing that publishers routinely plied the top reviewers with gifts (according to an article in the June 2011 issue of PC Magazine. Foursquare builds up its frequent user statistics by handing out points and badges to those who report on their location, getting them to compete to be named the “Mayor” of a particular spot for a time. Yelp keeps a host of statistics on its reviewers, displaying in a series of icons how each reviewer stacks up in terms of quanity of reviews, number of photos uploaded, number of “firsts” (being the first to review a new restaurant) and number of fans that reviewer has attracted. Yes, you read that right: People are signing up to be fans of amateur restaurant reviewers.

So, after making a bit of fun of the whole gestalt, you might think I’d quit my quest to get to the next level of badge on Trip Advisor. I should, and I would, but I can’t, because if I keep going I could have a gold star in the next couple of weeks. Just don’t ask me to tell you my trip advisor screen name. I won’t because I know the whole thing is perfectly silly…and I’d much rather have people judge me by the meaning of the words I write than by the color of the star beside my name. So I say, “Badges? I don’t have to show you any steenking badges!”

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