Social responsibility

I’ve dabbled with Foursquare and Swarm for a while, but only recently experienced first hand, what I consider to be one of the biggest flaws in the idea of social ratings and reviews. 

It’s far from drastic. Not a privacy issue or a scam or anything even very important perhaps, but it’s a big enough nudge to make me question my future use of Foursquare or any online review system. Basically, a place that I liked and left a good review for (Anatolia Ocakbasi) had slowly become very crappy. 

I was ignoring the fact for weeks, excusing their rudeness, slow service, and frequent order errors because perhaps I looked rude wearing headphones, or maybe because I smelt a bit after going to the gym. But when they burned my shish recently to the point of it tasting like the charcoal it was cooked over I realised they were just bad, and that their food hadn’t tasted good for months.  

As I say, it’s not the end of the world, it’s no big deal, it’s just a review and there’s another Ocakbasi up the road. Except, it is a big deal when you consider the collective effect of this surely being the case across the board of online reviews. People leave good ones, then a place changes, but the reviews remain. As if fake reviews weren’t enough, now I realise that even the real ones become worthless pretty quickly.

It’s reminding me again of the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect (a term and idea that I’m still surprised isn’t more popularly known or ‘officially’ studied). 

Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I call it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.

But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

^ Written by Michael Crichton for the International Leadership Forum, La Jolla, California, April 26, 2002. And thankfully still accessible due the Wayback Machine.

In this case the media is the review, and while we may know some are fake, and that we know that some places change and quality varies, we all still read reviews and forget what we know. Mass-social-amnesia. Or some sort of shared hallucination. 

Anyway, on my own social responsibility, after realising the change to Anatolia had nagged at me for a couple of weeks, last night I finally dug into Foursquare and deleted my positive review. I wrote a bad one in exchange. But now I realise this could damn the establishment if they ever do turn things around. 

What social responsibility is expected of us online in this sense? Should we all be going back and correcting our mistakes or at least annotating them? Issuing Tweet retractions, updating blog posts, retracting reviews, unliking likes? Like with the sponsors now dropping Lochte. Should we want and need to distance ourselves once we have new information or when we realise a change or mistake? Or just carry on aimlessly and safe in the herd effect? 

Furthermore, could the likes of Foursquare add methods to combat this? I’m frequently asked to review new places in the app, but I don’t remember being asked to review myself and my pass comments. 

Maybe we need an enforced admin day every month or two, where every social service shuts down their core functionality, so that no one can add to their social content. Regular functionality is then switched for interfaces that make us review ourselves. Every post, comment, retweet, like and endorsement, re-presented (represented?) like a lawyer slowly repeating our own words to ensure we’re thinking and aware of our actions. 

Who reviews the reviews?