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It’s happening again. As unforgiving, icy winter looms ever closer, I gradually increase the amount of time I spend on TripAdvisor.
I hit a peak of around five hours per week, in February. Sometimes, I learn things: I know where to find the best beach-front view on Turks and Caicos, for example, even though I have never knowingly heard that destination being said out loud. Occasionally, I copy and paste a page from the site into a draft email to myself; a thinly-veiled attempt to justify my time as “research” for a holiday I’ll take later in the year, even though I know perfectly well that when it comes down to it we’ll buy a package and simply stay in the least-worst hotel on the list, irrespective of whether it has won a “Travelers Choice Award”, the receptionist was once unkind to some granny’s guide-dog, or there’s a disappointing hairdryer in Room #276.
It’s not the hotels that have me hooked, anyway – it’s the general public. The bloke from the Midlands who rates his local boozer five stars but reckons the service in the Ritz-Carlton is “slapdash”. The woman who gives an internationally renowned resort a one-star rating on the basis of an obviously one-off instance of noise pollution from the nightclub next door. The family who pose for a photo on the balcony of their Junior Suite, cocktails in hand, captioned “paradise on Earth”, somehow oblivious to the fact that the car park in the background (chosen in preference to the spectacular lagoon on the other side of the building) has just put everyone off the idea of visiting their favourite establishment.
“Who ARE these people?” I laugh to myself – but, on aggregate, I trust the critical judgements of those whom, as individuals, I am content to discard as fruitcakes. I trust the wisdom of the crowd, but would never be a reviewer myself. Many is the time I’ve taken a recommendation from TripAdvisor, visited that place, enjoyed it – and then never so much as bothered to upload a photo myself. This, I assumed, is how any sane person uses TripAdvisor.
So, it was something of a shock when yesterday, for the first time, I clicked the Your Friends button – TripAdvisor’s sync-with-Facebook function – and discovered a suprisingly large cross-section of my friends, family and colleagues have indeed published reviews to the site. Some of these “contributions” are simple star ratings, or underwhelming check-ins (my mate who works in Manchester has, blow me, visited Manchester!). But others have written lengthy critiques. A friend from my teenage years, a wildchild who once was my go-to source for indie music recommendations and tales of depravity is, apparently, a “Senior Reviewer”. He thinks the staff in the YHA in Telford are passive-aggressive, and was “exasperated” by a visit to Pizza East. My mother’s cousin, a busy entrepreneur, has taken the time to tell the world that the De Vere Village hotel in Bury has “soap in the rooms, but just enough”. The girl I fancied in middle school – the girl we ALL fancied in middle school – has been to a B&B in Antwerp. She recommends people bring their own bubble bath. That, she says, is the only way to really feel the benefit of the clawfoot tub.
The idea behind this feature, of course, is that by identifying with the author of a review, you’re more likely to consider that review (and, by extension, all of TripAdvisor) as having more value, and consequently make more of your decisions based on its ratings and rankings. Instead, it’s freaked me out a bit. How can I laugh at the fruitcakes when my very own friends are amongst their number? How many long winters of looking at sun-drenched jpegs will it take before I, too, contribute a review? This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen.