I used to do quite a bit of reviewing on TripAdvisor; enjoyed the feeling of contributing and used the service when picking hotels and restos. But then I realized that this little warm glow was really all about making money for Silicon Valley VCs, and I have a major attitude problem about that. Which raises the issue; Is it ethically OK to participate in review sites at all? [Spoiler: Yeah, sometimes, but definitely not on Google Maps.]
Now, as for TripAdvisor, turns out the original VCs got their exit in 2004 when IAC snapped up the site, then it was spun off as part of Expedia, then split with Expedia with an add-on IPO in 2011. So I guess, these days, it’s just a company. And yeah, when I play its game, I am in fact making money for its shareholders. But I guess this is one of the more harmless corners of capitalism.
Except for, maybe not. The whole reviews business has been a fruitful source of stories about corruption and chicanery and below-the-surface you-are-the-product worst practices. I know that at Amazon, where the reviews aren’t the business but are a really big deal, we deploy really smart people who work really hard and apply really advanced technology to keep them usefully clean. With the best will in the world (which these people have, I know some), it’s nontrivial; the bad actors are people whose livelihoods depend on gaming the system. News flash: Being smart and working hard are not attributes restricted to the good guys.
But let’s assume a reviewing business manages to run clean and doesn’t have too many hidden agendas. I guess I’m having a hard time convincing myself you should never play. Maybe I’ll start doing a few TripAdvisor reviews again. Back in 2014, I tossed in a glowing review for a charming little hotel near Barcelona Sants train station, and for some reason really a lot of people found it useful, and (confession) that made me happy. And after all, I use the service.
But not Google Maps! · Last year in Map Review Fear, I worried out loud about the awesome power of Google Maps paired with Google Reviews. Since then, I read The Case Against Google, and I’ve pretty well convinced myself that the maps/reviews combo is pure evil.
Because, among other things, the Maps/Reviews interface is really freaking good. Whenever I sit down anywhere, my notifications start offering me pictures of where I am, invitations to contribute more, and then, with careful low-key tactfulness, wonder if it could ask me a couple of questions about this joint I’m sitting in: Good place to take kids? Got parking?
And I’m 100% sure that the Googlers building this thing are comfortable in their skins because all they’re doing is… making the maps more useful! Right? Why shouldn’t the review be right there on the map, which is where you already are when you’re trying to decide where to go, aren’t you? And pictures, and facts about children and parking?
But as The Case Against piece illustrates, the “make it more useful” story aligns so smoothly with the “how Google gets a universal monopoly on everything” story that you just can’t possibly ignore the congruence. So for damn sure I’m not going to join that dance any more, and regret the times I have.
Here’s a radical idea: Google Maps has become a utility. Practically speaking, it’s a service that nearly everyone uses that you need to accomplish some of the basics of modern life. We let utilities be privately owned, and we let them be monopolies, and we let their owners make quite a lot of money, but we fence them in, and I think that’s OK.
Call me crazy, but I’d pass legislation to keep Google from doing what they’re doing. They should be able to sell space on the maps, and they should be able to provide quality filters, and collect feedback on reviews and downgrade or upgrade them accordingly. But no damn way should they own the map and the crowdsourced value-adds on the map.
The map is not the territory, they say, but if we don’t watch out Big G is gonna own both.