An ID Card for Online Reviewers: A Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Idea

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A California man has started a company offering a special identity card for people who write a lot of online reviews.

The idea is that a prolific online reviewer would present the card to, say, a waiter as a way of letting the restaurant know that he plans on writing a review on Yelp or a similar service. This way the reviewer will be able to "get the service you deserve," according to the founder of ReviewerCard, Brad Newman.

David Lazarus at the L.A. Times points out that this sounds a bit like a shakedown. Restaurants, hotels, hair salons will feel extorted into providing better service to card holders for fear of receiving a bad review.

This, indeed, seems to be the selling point of ReviewerCard. (Did I mention it will cost you $100?)

From the L.A. Times:

Newman provided examples of the ReviewerCard in action. He told me about the time he visited a hotel in Geneva where a room typically costs about 400 euros a night, or roughly $500 at the time.

"I took out my card and asked if I could pay 200 euros," Newman said. "In return, I would write a great review on TripAdvisor. The woman at the hotel immediately said yes. It was a win-win for both of us."

Newman also relates a time he was able to skip a long line at a Chicago restaurant after he displayed his card.

Lazarus's main concern is with the unfairness of this situation. Non-card holders will lose out if card holders are allowed to cut ahead of them. Businesses will be pressured into providing discounts. And services like Yelp will see their platforms monetized by their reviewers (that, by the way, seems more like a feature than a bug to me). He worries that readers of reviews will not know that the reviewer wrote a glowing review in exchange for a discount or preferential treatment.

The last point comes close to the deeper problem with the ReviewerCard: even apart from the integrity problem of undisclosed incentives for writing positive reviews, the card undermines the utility of online reviews. Reviews of services and restaurants are only useful to consumers if they reflect what an ordinary consumer might expect when he purchases a service or eats at a restaurant. A review that reflects a privileged experience is useless to almost everyone—except perhaps other ReviewerCard holders.

The danger of differential service is why restaurant reviewers often go through great pains to be anonymous while movie reviewers do not. Both food critics and film critics are basically answering the same question for readers: will I enjoy this experience? But they operate very differently. Food critics sneak around, hide their identities, try to avoid being noticed by the staff. Film critics, on the other hand, attend exclusive advanced screenings and make no attempt to hide their identities. Why?

Because a movie reviewer doesn't need to worry that his access to a screening will mean that he will be shown a different film than what the general audience will see. (Although he may still face pressure to corrupt his review for fear of not being invited to future screenings.) The studio is showing a completed version of the film. The critic is just reporting on what the audience can expect to see.

A restaurant reviewer who is identified by the subject of his review will not be able to confidently tell readers what their experience will be like at the restaurant. The restaurant will take extra-care with the service provided and the dishes served. Even things such as adjusting the seating to give the reviewer the best seat in the house may affect the quality of the experience.

The strength of online reviews by ordinary people is that they can convey ordinary experience very well. There's no danger that a restaurant is giving the reviewer a privileged experience because the reviewer is just an ordinary customer with a Yelp account.

At the very least, online ethics should require that ReviewerCard holders disclose their status. That way readers will know that the experience described by the cardholder may be substantially better than the one they can expect to receive.

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