Welcome to Matter Anti-Matter, a site about nerd stuff. By day, I'm Head of Community at Kickstarter.
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My parents gave me a garbage can for Christmas.
It’s a fancy garbage can, has a motion sensor lid, makes beeping sounds, and needs to be plugged in. I have yet to take it out of the box.
Here’s the thing. I have a garbage can. It is a metal tube with a lid controlled by a foot pedal. I bought it at Bed Bath and Beyond. It was the second cheapest garbage can, and it’s served me well. It opens. It shuts. And it holds garbage like a champ.
I did not know I had an affinity for my garbage can until the new one that beeps showed up in the mail. The thought of a garbage can that uses electricity, that deprives me of the act of pressing on a foot pedal to open a lid was just too much. What kind of world do we live in where garbage cans are anything other than metal tubes with lids?
My mom called me shortly after she received delivery confirmation that the fancy garbage can had arrived at my apartment.
“Well?? Do you like it?” she asked. “We have one just like it at home! It works so well. You should set yours up right away.”
So I told her I’d be setting up the new garbage can right away, and that I couldn’t wait to use it.
My parents are coming to visit in two weeks. The fancy garbage can is still sealed in its box, shoved into a closet in my apartment.
I have been weighing my options.
I could drag the fancy can out of the closet and set the damn thing up and pretend like I’ve been enjoying its beeping at me for months. That would be the smart thing to do.
But there is that part of me that wants to drop the charade. What would happen if I just admitted that I kind of like my second-cheapest model garbage can with its parsimonious cylindrical shape and foot pedal? That it’s absurd to plug your garbage can into the wall just so you can never use your foot to open the lid ever again?
And then there is of course the compromise. I could drag the fancy can out of the box, and set it up in another room and pretend like I needed TWO garbage cans and it works great in this other room. Then when my parents have left I can casually slide it back into the closet.
It is moments like this where I am painfully aware that adulthood is contingent on your parents not coming to visit.
There are 2 digital pianos and 3 synths in my house.
I spend on average 0 hours a week playing music. Before moving to New York, I used to play music about 2-3 times a week, and play shows about once a month. Now I have musical instruments gathering dust in my closet, under my bed, and anywhere else they will fit in my apartment.
This weekend, I plugged headphones into one of those digital pianos and proceeded to massacre songs that I love. I messed around with Beethoven’s Pathetique. An abysmal performance, though feeling muscle memory in your hands spring into action is always fascinating. Like, how is it that I suck at reading music and am staring cross-eyed at some sort of double sharp diminished mess, confused as hell, but my hands are still sort of doing what they’re supposed to be doing?
After ruining Beethoven, I figured, what the hell. I might as well go destroy Chopin. So I pulled out the sheet music for Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2, Op. 31. My white whale.
I have loved this song since I first heard it. I was 14, and my piano teacher had me learning Chopin Preludes and listening to them on CD (part of the Suzuki method involved listening to a lot of music and training the ear to help you learn to play).
Well the Suzuki method is awesome, because if you learn to play by ear you can fudge learning how to read music. Which is exactly what happened to me. On my CD filled with Chopin tunes was this fucking incredible Scherzo that I immediately and desperately wanted to learn how to play. It was dark and beautiful, and used all the keys and clearly was the best Chopin song ever.
However, Mrs. Kade, my piano teacher, did not think this was the right type of song for me. In fact, every song I liked would be a song she didn’t want to teach me. I wanted to learn Rachmaninoff. She would teach me Bach. I wanted to learn this Scherzo. She taught me the Preludes.
Mrs. Kade was a mean old lady who didn’t want me to learn the good stuff. So I tried to teach myself this epic Chopin Scherzo. I listened to it over and over and over again. I tried to read the music and where the chords and arpeggios got too hard, I’d just make it up. As long as it sounded fine, close enough right?
I spent months on this secret mission to master this Chopin Scherzo. It was a slow, painful process, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get it to sound like the recording. I couldn’t play it fast enough. My hands couldn’t reach the chords. I didn’t have the agility to handle the runs and would trip of over my fingers every other try.
But after about a year, I finally got to the point where I could get through the whole thing — imperfectly, of course, but I could play the whole goddamn thing. I never told my piano teacher what I was up to, never shared with her that I had (imperfectly) taught myself the song she wouldn’t teach me.
Of course Mrs. Kade wasn’t just a mean old lady. She just didn’t know how to tell me that I didn’t actually have the skill to play these songs.
I still don’t have the skill to play the Scherzo, and stumbling through page after page of complex, insane music that would sound beautiful if only I could actually play it right is one of the most satisfying things in the world.
I will never master this song. I will also never stop trying to master this song.
Lately I’ve been having vivid dreams about work. I pass out in bed at night, and immediately launch into an extended-cut version of the day. I’m responding to emails that need replies, having phone meetings, discussing how to deal with this situation or that. It’s a bit distressing to be sure, but more so because I worry that my subconscious, in being so consumed, is not saving any space for other thoughts, things that may be in need of additional brain space (bacon, Higgs Boson, Doctor Who).
But really that whole story about my incredibly boring dreams is merely an elaborate set-up for something that has been nagging at me ever since the lightning storm that struck the D.C.-area over the weekend, causing widespread power outages. Somewhere in the D.C.-area lives magical infrastructure that makes it possible for Amazon’s EC2 to run. When EC2 went down, a cascade of web services either experienced intermittent outages or went down altogether.
When you think about the suite of things on the internet you rely on — the services that aren’t just “products” to you, but vital to your daily life, an outage tends to provoke a range of intense emotions. Anger, frustration, confusion, indignation. The expectation is that web-based services need to be available every single day, 24-hours a day. There are no business hours in the world of internet services. All hours are business hours.
It is both the curse and the reward of being a web-based service. You’ve got a huge, passionate community of users who support you, defend you when people misunderstand you, protect you when somebody tries to hurt you. They make your site a wonderful place to be. So when a site goes down, that same community feels that something fundamental has been taken away from them, and they want it back. Now.
Let’s return to D.C. last weekend. You’re at home, and a crazy lightning storm is raging outside. The power’s out, and you’re scared to go outside. As the storm passes, you suddenly get a real hankering for a candy bar. It is 2am. You get in your car and drive to the nearest 7-Eleven, only to find a sign on the door that says “Due to the power outage, we are closed until further notice.” You turn around and go home.
When you work for the internet, nobody turns around and goes home. Heck, you are their home, and they can’t figure out why you won’t let them in. It’s a delicate balance, managing the expectations of a community that not only believes in you, but believes you are impervious. By running smoothly 99.9% of the time, you effectively render your own infrastructure invisible. Any minor crack in the facade is amplified a hundred times by virtue of its mere existence.
So the next time your favorite site experiences technical difficulties, know that we’re working on it, always.
Every morning I wake up and check what the temperature outside is on my phone. I hop in the shower and while showering I wonder what the appropriate outfit is for the weather outside. I mentally catalogue what is in my closet (solid tank tops, a few dresses, one pair of shorts). I think about the weather again.
I hate getting dressed in the morning. Is it okay to wear two different shades of grey? If I wear a red shirt with blue shorts and white sweater will I look oddly patriotic? Is this tank top a weird length? Does anybody out there know if this dress I have owned since ‘02 is still acceptable? What if people stare?
Before you know it I am standing in front of my closet and filled with self-loathing because it shouldn’t be hard. Why is this so hard?
There is a set of skills that I perceive other women as having that I do not. The ability to know what to wear is among them. So is knowing how to put on makeup, or wear “accessories.” The whole idea of Fashion makes me very uncomfortable.
I often wonder what the exact moment was when I discovered the feeling of self-consciousness. It’s odd - I remember being ridiculed for being Chinese in grade school, and I remember being made fun of for having glasses and for having “weird” food in my lunch. And I remember thinking life would be so much easier if I was just pretty. But the first moment of self-consciousness. I think that it might have been the shiny jogging suit.
In the second grade, I had the great privilege of getting to pick out my own outfit for school. I had a closet full of things that second graders wear. Overalls were pretty big back then. So were dresses with tights. But I had something very special I wanted to wear. It was a shiny two-piece jogging suit. The fabric was a highly advanced nylon-polyester blend, pearlescent in color and luminescent to the naked eye. Zeus himself would be honored to rule the heavens in this jogging suit, with Hera in a matching suit at his side. Fabric of the Gods.
The shiny jogging suit came from a recent family trip to Hong Kong, which is where all cutting-edge fashion comes from. I had surely never seen something like it in my lifetime, and the plan was to debut this small piece of the future of fashion to my second grade class. I might be very popular that day.
I carefully put on my shiny jogging suit. It slides on so easily, fits like a dream, and best of all, the top matches the bottom perfectly. I am giddy with anticipation, imagining what it must feel like to be so admired.
My parents drop me off at school, and I boldly walk through those double doors, on top of the world. I slowly head down the hallway toward my locker and check to see who might be looking.
And then it happens. I see that everyone else is wearing overalls, or dresses with tights. I look at my outfit and I want to die. I’ve made a horrible mistake. I want to spend the rest of the day inside my locker, hide my difference from everyone. I want to take it all back.
So I guess the question remains: what should I wear today?
The conversation surrounding how to liberate HBO from its cable partners and create the entertainment utopia viewers have long desired has been fascinating.
The resulting analyses of the numbers has pretty much shown that the amount people are willing to pay is not nearly enough to counter what cable giants bring to networks like HBO. We’d each have to pay a gazillion dollars (more or less) in order to offset the cost of making tv shows, marketing them, selling advertising, paying the actors, the gaffers, sound editing, the deli plates, the office space the sales people are housed in, costumes, post-production. Yikes!
HBO itself would probably love to find a way to not have to bunk with the cable companies, but that is the system and it can’t be changed overnight and yada yada yada.
Yes, economically and politically a la carte entertainment is not only unviable, it’s absurd! Imagine the enormity of rebuilding how entertainment gets made from the ground up.
You’d have to write a script, and instead of some production company or studio or super rich investor person stepping in to fund the pilot, you would be on your own.
You’d have to gather friends and colleagues and film the damn thing yourself. You’d do all the marketing yourself, and you’d be in charge of figuring out how to deliver the thing to people.
You’d also have to hope enough people watch your show to make it possible to keep on making it. And you’d hope that you can somehow pay rent and pay your friends and eat in the meantime.
People argue all the time that quality entertainment can’t be made for less than some number ending with no less than 5 zeros. Well people, you are wrong. Just look at The Silent City. Filmed on a shoestring budget, using natural locations instead of building massive sets — the result is pretty incredible, and it’s making me wonder more and more if the barriers to creating quality entertainment aren’t really so much about money, as cable companies, networks, and the media would argue, but who controls the money and who decides how things get made.
I don’t doubt for a second that shows like Game of Thrones cost a bajillion zillion dollars (more or less) to make, but I also wonder if in some not-so-distant future, people will film their own Game of Thrones in the woods behind the house and cast unknown talented people and distribute episodes online and all of those people clamoring for a la carte entertainment will insert a coin in the slot and unlock the next episode and maybe insert a few more coins so that the full season will get made.
In this scenario the infrastructure of television and all the people it takes to actually make the show still exists. But how something gets made is different. It’s lean. It’s more efficient. And whether or not it’s allowed to exist isn’t determined by audience share and a pre-determined number of viewers based on time slot and competition with other shows on other channels. The viewer is given agency, and so are you.
You can fund your show directly from your audience. You may not become a rich fat cat making web shows, but you will control your story and your art and your audience and fans will eagerly support you for it. That thing that happens where it seems the smartest television shows are always the first to get cut because the teeming masses want more explosions and boobs? That’s dumb, and you can change that. You shouldn’t be at the mercy of The Business.
And don’t worry, I’m well aware that The TV Industry will tell me I don’t understand the business, and I’m making crazy claims based in a fantasy. To those people I have this to say: That is the point.
The Take My Money, HBO movement may be a failure from the standpoint that HBO will most certainly not take your money in exchange for cutting its ties to the cable company. But it’s a raging success because guess what? People believe in the idea, and ideas are much more powerful than institutions.
Oh and also, in another 10 years I have a feeling kids will have no idea what “TV” is. So best to start saying Web-a-vision or Internetsplosion or Joyous-Viewing-Device now, you know, before anyone else knew it was cool.
I’ve been so busy lately that writing and posting here has fallen to the wayside, and today is no different. So rather than reblog a photo of Benedict Cumberbatch, I’m just going to go ahead and post this thing I wrote a year ago and never published:
I like riding my bike to and from work. It’s the most time I get to spend outside during the week, and it makes me feel like I am the agent of my own destiny, rather than a pig awaiting slaughter on the subway platform or bus stop.
Yesterday, I headed home on my bike as I usually do. It’s only about 3 miles and a quick 25 min. ride. Half the ride is on the Williamsburg Bridge, which is nice because it means I’m not in traffic. The other half is through Williamsburg, also not bad because trucks and buses tend to stick to two main streets.
Nevertheless, by the time I made it home yesterday I had become one of those psychotic angry people who shouts obscenities at cars, waving both middle fingers as dramatically as I could at two middle-aged ladies in a convertible, trying to figure out how best to convey moral indignity while repressing the urge to cry and throw my bike into their windshield.
I try to be a level-headed person in general, but lately I’ve been feeling pretty frustrated with my simple 25 min. bike ride. There are the little things that irk me — cars that insist on using the bike lane as a loading zone, drivers that never check for bikes in the bike lane, delivery trucks and buses that blow past you seemingly unaware that they’re inches within ending your life, getting stuck behind garbage trucks that bathe you in a cloud of rot and decay. You have to learn to read traffic signals and rules contextually, because the cars around here don’t care. They may have a red light or a stop sign, but that doesn’t mean they won’t still plow through an intersection.
All of these things I’ve come to accept as part of the deal. I ride my bike, you try kill me.
Then there’s the two ladies in the convertible yesterday, who didn’t like the fact that they couldn’t speed to the stop sign a half a block ahead because they were stuck behind me, the lowly bicyclist. So they laid into their horn, alerting me that I should get out of their way. For a HALF A BLOCK. Out of the way meant either swerving left into oncoming traffic, or swerving right into a ditch (narrow, local road). I stayed the course and listened to their horn at my back and thought about the non-choice they had offered me with that easy, blast of the car horn. Get out of the way and die, is what that (fucking)horn said.
It’s stupid that this silly, meaningless message broadcast from some stranger’s car made me contemplate the virtue of human existence. But as they passed me by, clearly unconcerned that I was shouting “FUCK YOU” and making lewd gestures at them, I realized how unfair it is that I can’t push a button, rip the doors and hood off a car, and blast a horn into the driver’s face. I can’t say, “Dear Stranger in Car, you’re life is worth less to me than getting to this stop sign faster.”
And you know what? I would never say that to someone, and quite frankly, I imagine most people, even idiot drivers in cars, wouldn’t think themselves capable of saying it either. But that, in effect, is what has been said, and yesterday it pushed me over the edge.
I started reading Joel Spolsky’s post about Management Teams earlier this week and nearly choked on my coffee when I saw this:
Very few company founders start out with management experience, so they tend to make it up as they go along. Sometimes they try to reinvent management from first principles. More often than not, they manage their startups the way that they’ve seen management work on TV and in movies. I’ll bet more entrepreneurs model their behavior on Captain Picard from Star Trek than any nonfiction human.
Coincidentally, I’d recently written a post about the strength of Pinterest’s customer support, which ended with this thought:
I often joke that when making tough calls as a Community Manager, I ask myself what Captain Picard would do (cotroxell can attest to this). I think this is exactly what Picard would have done.
When Spolsky lamented the tendency for inexperienced managers to invoke Picard, my mind immediately raced to my now-condemning blog post. Of all the captains on all the starships, why Picard? Why??
I figured I should probably read the rest of Spolsky’s post. As it turns out, Spolsky gets many of the big ideas right, but a lot of the details wrong.
As an anecdote to what he thinks of as top-down Picardian management, Spolsky proposes the upside-down pyramid:
Stop thinking of the management team at the top of the organization. Start thinking of the software developers, the designers, the product managers, and the front line sales people as the top of the organization.
It’s an interesting suggestion, that by flipping everything upside-down you can solve many of the issues that top-down management inherently breeds. Management teams, he argues, should think of themselves more as Administration. Their job is to ensure that the real experts can do what they do best.
Spolsky then goes into how the University Department is an excellent example of the upside-down pyramid at work, where administrators support a core team of knowledge workers and enable them to do what they do best:
Think about how a university department organizes itself. There are professors at various ranks, who pretty much just do whatever the heck they want. Then there’s a department chairperson who, more often than not, got suckered into the role. The chairperson of the department might call meetings and adjudicate who teaches what class, but she certainly doesn’t tell the other professors what research to do, or when to hold office hours, or what to write or think.
But as anyone who has ever worked in a University can attest, this upside-down pyramid is paralytically inefficient, and more often than not leads to frustration within an organization. Not the greatest example, as many commenters were quick to point out. At the heart of it though, I agreed with the spirit of what Spolsky was trying to convey: do not stand in the way of your team’s abilities.
After reading the rest of the post, I kept returning to Spolsky’s opening analogy that looking to Captain Picard is a frequent mistake among rookies. And while Spolsky may be an expert on building companies, I just so happen to be an expert on Captain Picard.
The reason so many inexperienced managers might envision themselves as potential Picards is not because they think it’s important to know what chair you occupy in the chain of command, but because of how Picard relates to his fellow crew members. He is compassionate, always puts his crew’s needs ahead of his own, and leads without ego. Though he respects the rules of the world he lives in, he questions those rules rigorously and never accepts them at face value. He’s driven by a pursuit of knowledge and a desire to better the human race, not by a thirst for power or need for recognition. And when a painful or difficult decision needs to be made, he accepts full responsibility for the consequences.
In short, Picard is the very example of what Spolsky was trying to illustrate through his failed University analogue. He is the manager who leads by supporting others, and who does not stand in the way of his team’s growth and success.
And while Spolsky laments managers that become “ultimate decision makers,” he overlooks the need for an ultimate decision maker within specific contexts. In other words, sometimes you have to go into command mode in order to move forward, make tough calls, and get through the day. Or defeat the Borg.
When it comes to community management at least, there is no finer example than Captain Jean-Luc Picard.
Every company would do well to pay more attention to Picard. If you’re not sure where to begin, I recommend Season 5.
Recently, Pinterest was asked by officials from Mitt Romney’s campaign to change the name on the account of a user who had created a satirical board poking fun at Romney’s, how shall we say, epicurean tastes.
While it’s clear the Pinterest team appreciated the commentary and creativity that Eric’s board brought to their site, when it comes to setting a precedent for the rest of Pinterest’s community, things like fake accounts and impersonation swing both ways. It’s not long before you have more fake accounts pinning items and proliferating ideologies that may not be so easy to stomach.
Here’s the message their Community Manager sent to Eric:
From: Enid Hwang
Date: Fri, Feb 10, 2012 at 9:51 AM PST
Subject: Pinterest: “MittRomneyGOP” username
To: Eric Spiegelman
I’m Enid, the Community Manager at Pinterest. As you might have guessed, I’m writing regarding your username “MittRomneyGOP.” We were recently contacted by officials from Mitt Romney’s campaign because they feel it’s very misleading and they’re requesting that it be changed to “fakemittromney.”
We actually really appreciate political commentary on Pinterest - and I know your account is clearly satirical - but we’re a young company so we don’t have a feature/process in place for “verified accounts” (such as Twitter) which would make the purpose of your account immediately obvious to any user on the site.
If you don’t mind changing your username, let me know. Or, you can just go ahead and make the switch yourself at: https://pinterest.com/settings. We’ve been brainstorming alternatives and unfortunately we feel changing your profile picture or adding a byline on your “bio” section on Pinterest may not be sufficient because that information isn’t included with all pins that propagate through the site.
We’re also really open to discussing the issue more with you, so you can reach me directly at [REDACTED] if you have any questions.
I’m sorry for the trouble and again, don’t hesitate to call if you’re concerned about this!
Eric’s response to Pinterest initially implored them to consider his First Amendment Rights, and not yield to the pressure of Mitt Romney’s team.
From: Eric Spiegelman
Date: Fri, Feb 10, 2012 at 10:14 AM PST
Subject: Re: Pinterest: “MittRomneyGOP” username
To: Enid Hwang
Obviously I understand your concern. And I can imagine as a new company (one that’s really doing a great job), you’d prefer not to have hassles like this. But at the same time, you’re a publishing entity that’s more or less open to the public, and I can’t in good conscience change my parody at the request of the subject of that parody. It should be obvious to the Romney campaign that nobody sees this as official, and that I am exercising my Free Speech rights in making fun of Gov. Romney’s utter tone-deafness when it comes to matters of privilege and class inequality.
That being said, I understand that you are well within your rights to delete my account. But I really hope you choose not to.
You have a wonderful service in Pinterest, and I wish your team all the best, however you proceed with this.
In response to this, Pinterest offered a compromise:
From: Enid Hwang
Date: Fri, Feb 10, 2012 at 10:24 AM PST
Subject: Re: Pinterest: “MittRomneyGOP” username
To: Eric Spiegelman
Thanks for getting back to me so quickly: We have no intention of deleting your account. It’s satire and it should stay! We’ll change the username (this doesn’t affect your boards, pins, or anything else about your profile settings) and we feel that’s sufficient. Once we institute verified accounts this, and any future issues, will be taken care of universally. That’s our responsibility so sorry again for having you caught in the middle of it.
I really appreciate your note (and compliments!) and thanks so much for your understanding,
While Eric initially was not satisfied with this either, he eventually apologized to the Pinterest team, recognizing that their decision had nothing to do with politics:
Pinterest is a site suddenly hitting the mainstream in a big way and I’m sure they have plenty to deal with, without some asshole like me using their platform in a way that isn’t exactly what they had in mind for it. I have a lot of admiration for what their team has achieved and I am sorry if I have at all distracted them from their pursuit.
These kinds of delicate situations arise every day when you have a passionate user community. Some battles you can win, others you can’t. In this case, Pinterest’s team opted for a compromise — something they were under no obligation to do — but which clearly made all the difference in the final outcome.
Compromise will not always work, and the bigger a site gets, the harder it will be to handle every case with such personal care. But one of the most important things a Community Team does is remind users that behind all those necessary rules and regulations are real people who, more than anything, care deeply about their users.
I often joke that when making tough calls as a Community Manager, I ask myself what Captain Picard would do (cotroxell can attest to this). I think this is exactly what Picard would have done.
Yesterday a random post from tech blog The Next Web popped up on my dashboard, featuring a snippet from a story they ran about Filip Santa, a “Gutsy Designer” who launched a site that doubles as his resume called takemetosiliconvalley.com.
“Hello Guys, Scroll Down Please,” the site says.
Go ahead, look at the site and soak it in.
When I landed on the site, my first thoughts were 1) the design isn’t that great and 2) wtf why is this page designed to look like a pair of giant breasts, so much so that the design “theme” carries forward as you go down the page?
fig 1: cleavage
fig 2: boobs
Now regardless of whether or not you feel it’s innovative to make a website where your cover letter is merged into your resume, I thought the page was offensive.
I get that Filip, a 19-year-old guy with dreams of a job in Silicon Valley, might also like boobs and thus brazenly designed them into his website. What I don’t get is why The Next Web rewarded him by uncritically writing up his site like it was the best idea since sliced bread:
The site serves as a resume and timeline of Santa’s life, and is actually quite humorous and brave at the same time.
I don’t get why commenters on the piece praise Filip for going “big.” It’s equally baffling that he’s already received job offers on account of TNW’s coverage:
Sounds like everyone has been drinking the Silicon Valley Kool-Aid. Either they saw the boob thing and didn’t care, or worse, they saw the boob thing and thought it was in fact brave and gutsy.
Something is deeply wrong here. It’s embarrassing and unacceptable that The Next Web wrote this piece as though there are no women in the audience. It’s worse yet that readers and commenters didn’t see what was right in front of their eyes.
There’s a strong bro-energy that can often pervade the tech scene, something made worse when there are no women in the room. But gender diversity in tech is about more than just training women programmers, making sure there are more women founders, and establishing parity in numbers. It’s about a fundamental cultural shift, starting with the ability to see when something is wrong.
Last weekend, after being inspired by a gorgeous, delicious meal I had at a new local restaurant called Bistro Petit, I decided to write a review on Yelp.
I’ve never submitted content to Yelp before. I use it as a guide, mainly when I’m trying to find some place to eat, but I’ve never gone so far as to create a user account and participate in the community.
What led me to cross over from being a passive consumer to a an almost-participant (more on this in a minute) in the Yelp community? I’ve had many fabulous (and not-so-fabulous) meals before at many restaurants, and while I could have written reviews for any number of them, I never did. Reviewing something, for me at least, takes time. And when there’s only so much time in a day, it’s hard to take that leap and join another community. Nothing out there made me feel like I needed to participate.
The reason I sat down and wrote a review on Yelp for Bistro Petit is because I felt like I’d made a positive connection with the not a place of business, but with the people who own it and run it. After my dining experience, the owner/chef seemed like someone who really, truly cared about the food he was serving, and a Yelp review could be a nice way to say “Hello! I liked your restaurant very much and wanted to go the extra mile to let you know by writing this review for others to see.”
That was my first mistake. For me, it wasn’t about just liking the food. It was about liking the experience and the people, and wanting to somehow communicate that with others. These are all highly editorial, personal motivations, which let me to my second mistake.
I treated my Yelp review like a real food review, which is how I’m used to reviewing restaurants. I went through each dish I ordered and described its contents, and the experience of eating it. I might have gotten a bit carried away gushing about the heavenly mix of kimchi and saffron that served as the base for my bouillabaisse. In the end, my review came out pretty long, and when I posted it, I thought, “Holy shit that’s really long. Woops!” But, I’d also spent a good 45 minutes writing and figured, what the hell, if somebody wants to know what aromas added to my enjoyment of a pan-fried striped bass, they’ll read on. If they couldn’t care less, they can skip it. I purposefully opened with a general recommendation/summary of my experience in the first two lines, thus giving those who don’t like to get carried away by food writing a convenient out.
A few days later, I noticed that my review had been filtered out by Yelp’s review filter. Their filter aims to get rid of the riff raff, the unreliable narrators that threaten to undermine the integrity of their business model. It’s a real problem, to be sure. There are unscrupulous businesses that pay mercenaries to write fake reviews, and those fake reviews are more threatening to a business like Yelp than any disheartened first-time reviewer that let herself get carried away by a good meal. Fake reviewers make it possible for businesses that are least deserving of customers to fake their way into legitimacy, and they create a hostile environment where it’s possible for businesses to target competitors with faked negative reviews. It’s a mess, and I don’t envy the Yelp team whose job it is to deal with the perpetrators that slip through and the he-said/she-said accusations that I’m sure come flying into their support desk.
How does Yelp’s review filter work? They’ve got a video that explains it here. They don’t offer any detail about the review algorithm, but it’s safe to assume that it uses data from tracking hundreds of thousands of entries and looks for specific data points that give you a high % chance of being a fake reviewer.
I’m only guessing, but I assume I tripped their sensors by:
So basically, if you’ve been hired to write fake reviews of restaurants, then you probably try to sound authentic by overcompensating with fancy food adjectives that might help prove you were really there.
Unfortunately, that means Yelp’s review filter also squashed my passionate, overly-indulgent review of one of best meals I’ve had in a long time. My review still exists, but it’s not visible unless you click through to the filtered reviews on the bottom of the page.
There is no way for Yelp to reverse the decision manually, as they’ve given their algorithm all the power. Well, either that or they’re blaming the algorithm so that their support team doesn’t have to fight with people all day long — an understandable, albeit frustrating, necessity. As someone from Yelp’s support team told me via Twitter, “since our inception we’ve always been a community review site, not a drive by one. Unfort not everyone out there is above board & the filter is an impt measure we have to take to ensure Yelp is actually a useful place.”
According to their FAQ, Yelp will release reviews back to the public once you’ve proven your human-ness by writing more reviews, spending more time in their community, and acting less, well, like me.
My job involves a lot of theorizing about what might get lost when you remove human judgment from community moderation and rely wholly on automation and algorithms. In this case, you can see that a first-time user of Yelp could very easily resemble a fake first-time user because both are newcomers to the community and aren’t that familiar with the conventions. And even if Yelp were to teach new users how to be good community members (Don’t write too much! Don’t use crazy flourishing adjectives!), they’d also be coaching fakers in how to be better at faking it.
It’s a reminder that to really build an online community, you have to employ moderation, and you end up losing something no matter what approach you take. Unfortunately, the amount of friction I experienced as a first-time reviewer, and the homework I’ve been assigned (writing more reviews in order to release the first filtered review) just doesn’t seem worth it at this point.