So, in early September, the most remarkable thing happened in Atlanta. It looked like this (he said, in a surprisingly good imitation of radio’s Casey Kasem):
As you see, number eight on Urbanspoon’s “Talk of the Town,” is a KFC. The day after I took this screen shot, Proof and Provision fell to number ten, elevating KFC up one to number seven. And this is not just any KFC, but the one with the building that looks a little bit like this:
Look familiar to you? You may recall that on August 31, we presented a photo post about the Big Chicken here in Marietta. But then something very unusual happened behind the scenes.
You see, the “Talk of the Town” is a source of some controversy among a few well-meaning Urbanspoon special snowflakes, who, having been rewarded with the “Prime” certification, socialize on a members-only message board and forum. Depending on whom you ask, “Talk of the Town” could be a list of the ten most buzzed-about and talked-about restaurants of that region, updated daily. Or it could be a list of what is being talked about on that website. A few users have been complaining that they don’t have any influence on the list.
Some people contend, and not without good reason, that “Talk of the Town” does not serve much purpose and, particularly in smaller communities where Urbanspoon is not used quite as much, dead space. They may have some points there. Take, for example, Urbanspoon Macon, where, with only 14 bloggers ever writing about restaurants in that city – most of them Atlanta bloggers on road trips – any blogger who reviews any restaurant that anybody else has covered can effectively knock that restaurant into “Talk of the Town.” Better yet, look at lowly Urbanspoon Valdosta, where there are only, at the time of writing, three blog posts from three different bloggers about three separate restaurants. Valdosta has no “Talk of the Town” because nobody is talking about restaurants in that town. (This is in the process of changing, and a local writer has started a blog called Moody Foodie GA. Best of luck to her!)
(This is a good place to point out that all of this presumes that Urbanspoon has any connection with bloggers to know that they are out there. In Atlanta alone, Marie and I have met at least six food bloggers at media events who either never use the service and its audience-boosting reciprocal links when they talk about restaurants, or just got out of the habit and continued writing their blogs without them, and that’s not counting all the great bloggers that we read but have never met that don’t “spoonback” either. My point is, bloggers have to take the few minutes necessary to start up a relationship with Urbanspoon in order to be counted as buzzing about the city in the first place.)
In the larger cities, it should take a little more muscle to get a restaurant into the “Talk of the Town” top ten. Since we have several regular publications like the newspapers, Creative Loafing, Atlanta magazine, the local Eater branch, and Zagat all in the critics’ column presenting news about major new openings, and a very active blogging community, there are quite a few stories and reviews posted every day. But what happened here was particularly strange because the KFC in question is certainly not a major new opening. It’s been a KFC since the early 1970s. But – and here’s the first weird loophole – it was not listed in Urbanspoon. Heaven knows how or why, but the database certainly has a hole or nine. Somehow, this KFC wasn’t in there. So, the last week in August, I added it, in part because I like the idea of a complete and accurate database, but also so that I could get the code for the little “spoonback” box to Urbanspoon that readers see at the bottom of most of our entries.
The first problem, therefore: Urbanspoon understood this new addition to its database to be a brand new restaurant, and not something that’s been owned by KFC for as long as most people reading this have been alive. The second problem: ours, the # 4 blog in Atlanta at the time, featured a post about it. The third problem, the wonderful Marilyn Wolf, who writes Atlanta etc., the # 2 blog in the city (for now) saw my post, and remembered that she’d written about and photographed that KFC for her readers more than two years previously. Now that this restaurant was listed in Urbanspoon, she could get the code and enjoy a little reciprocal “spoonback” traffic from it as well. So she updated her old post with the little box, as well she should.
And now we know what happens when the # 2 blog and the # 4 blog in Atlanta each, within seven days, send “spoonback” links to a brand new-to-Urbanspoon restaurant. Quite unwittingly, we teamed up to kick this restaurant into the “Talk of the Town,” number eight with a bullet, despite the simple, honest, reality that nobody is really talking about it!
These loopholes illustrate a very small problem to my mind. I certainly don’t agree that it is anywhere near the kind of catastrophic issue that one or two of my fellow Primes believe. They seem to suggest that the influence of bloggers can be unfair, in part because of a perception that there are, in any city, some who will only write about restaurants that have comped the meal. But really, whether a meal is free or paid in full – Marie and I do believe that this information should always be disclosed – talk is talk. If a restaurant is being featured frequently, and recently, on blogs about the city, then it should be reflected in the listing for the city. The counterpoint is that the “Talk of the Town” listing should reflect more of what Prime users are talking about, but that seems to me to be a different field entirely. Food Near Snellville suggests that what these users want is a list called “Prime’s Picks.” I think that my learned friend is too kind; the entitled way some of them acted prompted some considerably less polite suggestions for what we should term their demands.
A “Prime” could be anybody who got that service upgrade for any number of reasons. It could be the user who wants to eat, once, at every restaurant in the city, provide a short review, and never visit it again. It could be the user who wants to upload twenty pictures for every restaurant that he visits. It could even be the user who sat down one month and phoned close to a thousand restaurants in Georgia and Alabama to see whether they were still in business – hundreds were not – and when they were open to the public. Whatever the case, there is no reason to conclude that just because a hobbyist engages, to an outsize degree, with one website, then they should be rewarded with outsize influence upon that website.
No, I think the actual problem is this: now that we know how to game the system, there’s really nothing beyond the fact that we’re just so gosh-darned nice stopping us from adding restaurants to Urbanspoon’s database that don’t actually exist, and enlisting one or two friends among the local blogging community to give them fake writeups. Wouldn’t that be a lovely prank?
Indeed, with just a little forethought, that joint on Sesame Street where Grover is forever serving that fellow with the moustache a bowl of soup with a fly in it could be in some city’s Talk of the Town. Probably wouldn’t take much to get some user diner reviews about the incompetent service. “I wanted my waiter to be near, but he was always far…”
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