“Unregulated Opinions” or “Evaluation Culture”? the Reviewing of Restaurants By Ordinary Customers

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 2:15 PM-3:45 PM
TW1.3.02 (Tower One)
Jean-Samuel Beuscart, University Paris Est - Marne-la-Vallee, Paris, France; Orange Labs, Paris, France
Kevin Mellet, Orange Labs, Paris, France
Marie Trespeuch, Orange Labs, Paris, France
In this paper we examine online amateur valuation practices. In recent years, websites where ordinary users can rate and review (R&R) products and services have become ubiquitous. This new, crowdsourced, form of valuation transforms the markets in several ways. Existing research shows that consumer R&R affect the demand for products such as restaurants (Luca, 2011); and that they transform the economic activity of suppliers, who may use them as customer relation tools (Beuscart & al., 2014) or as management tools (Scott and Orlikowski, 2012). Little empirical attention has been dedicated, though, to the reviewing activity of ordinary users, and to the nature of the valuation enacted by R&R devices - Pinch and Kessler (2011) focus on top Amazon contributors. Understanding how “ordinary” customers evaluate products, the kind of criteria they rely on, is very important in order to characterize the shift produced by these new valuation devices: what kinds of qualities are favored by customers? What type of judgment do they produce? What is, ultimately, the figure of the ‘judging’ customer?

With a focus on French restaurants, we conducted 33 interviews with regular and intensive users of reservation and R&R site LaFourchette (TheFork, recently bought by TripAdvisor). Interviews were combined with usage data provided by the website, and with extensive discussions with staff members. Building on this material we get to several results.. First, against the idea that online reviews express the unregulated subjectivity of customers, users, whether intensive or not, have a very convergent and homogeneous view of what a good review is: it is short (3 to 5 lines), concise, precise, should underline a particular quality or default of the experience, etc. Secondly, users follow the criteria suggested by the website (food / setting / service), but most of them add a fourth quality, the warmth of the reception by the owner and staff, a quality that might specifically emerge from amateur evaluation. Finally, most users do not consider the act of reviewing as an expression of gourmet taste (few of them describe meals in their reviews), but as an act of auditing the quality (freshness, etc.) of the restaurant, and the match between the experience and the promise made on the website.

Against the interpretation of online ratings as the aggregation of heterogeneous “unregulated opinions” (Orlikowski and Scott, 2014), we suggest that users have built an “evaluation culture” (MacKenzie, 2011) around the website, which drives contributors in defining what a good review is in term of format, style, and criteria. When giving their opinion, these socialized users take into account their readers, writing short reviews for other consumers, and “constructive” reviews for restaurant owners; they describe themselves as “responsible”, far from the image of the subjective and volatile anonymous internet user. In the discussion, we analyze to what extent these results can be extended to other online R&R websites, and what are the mechanisms through which a coherent culture may emerge around a participatory website.