Category Archives: Reviews and Ratings

Are there any bad Airbnb experiences?

My first experience with Airbnb was 5 years ago.  A group of us were planning to meet for a 4-day conference in Boston, and one friend suggested we rent a 2-story brownstone on Airbnb.  Her idea was that rather than staying in 3 separate hotel rooms, we could all save some money this way – and we could also see each other a bit more, since at that time, we were scattered across different parts of the world. The plan sounded good to all of us.

Our Airbnb host was pleasant young woman who lived on the ground level of the same building, and as she gave us the key and showed us around the 2 floors of our unit, she assured us that we could use anything and everything we found in the house:  the kitchen was fully stocked, the living spaces were filled with fascinating vintage objects… but the real highlight was our host’s eclectic collection of over 2,000 records.  She said we could play those too. (We took up her offer: the 5 of us stayed up really late one night, drinking wine, and listening to genres of music we didn’t even know existed.)  After our initial orientation, we never saw our host again, but every now and again, we could hear her footsteps below us (which, at least to us, felt more reassuring than obtrusive).

In the end, the house was a bit out of the way, and Boston was cold, so what we ended up saving on hotel rooms we probably spent in taxi fares.  But we definitely got to spend more time as a group – making breakfast together in the morning, and at the end of each day, lounging around comfortably in “our” living room, chatting, and catching up with each other.  It’s one of my favorite conference memories.

Since then, I’ve used Airbnb over a dozen times.  Sometimes because Airbnb was a more economical option than a hotel (Barcelona, Helsinki); other times because I wanted to stay in a particular neighborhood that didn’t even have any hotels in it (Chicago, Philadelphia); and a few other times, out of nothing more than a sheer sense of adventure (Bali).  All of these stays have been memorable – either due to some unique features of the property itself, or due to the host’s fun or quirky perspective which expressed itself in the property’s furnishings (like in our Boston house), or perhaps due to an unexpected interpersonal interaction associated with our stay (either with the host, or with other guests).

Of all of my Airbnb experiences, only 1 has been unacceptable.  And this seems to be the general trend.  For most people I’ve talked to, the overwhelming majority of their Airbnb experiences have been great…and sometimes even amazing. I’ve collected stories of Airbnb hosts picking guests up at the airport late at night, of making them breakfast or cooking them dinner, of showing them around the city, of introducing them to their group of local friends: in other words, experiences which involve some kind of actual “sharing” – as is implied by the broader label of “the sharing economy.”

However, most people who use Airbnb regularly have also shared at least one story of a not-so-great — or even downright-unpleasant — experience (a dirty property, a unit that looked nothing like what was advertised, an unresponsive host, etc.).  These experiences are certainly the exception rather than the norm.  But I always ask: “Did you leave a negative review on Airbnb’s site?”  And the answer, invariably, is “no.”

There are many reasons for this, as Judith Bridges and I discuss in our recent Current Issues in Tourism article: “If nearly all Airbnb reviews are positive, does that make them meaningless?”  As we explain, sometimes reviews that appear to be positive on the surface, actually reflect less-than-positive experiences.  We also provide a few tips Airbnb consumers can use for “reading between the lines” as they consult reviews on the site.

Ratings and Reviews…not the same thing.

It’s been years since I’ve watched the film version of the Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy, and the only scene I remember is the one in which a group of humans ask a supercomputer to provide the answer to the “ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.”   After much computational activity, the supercomputer responds: “42.”  I think that this is a brilliant illustration of the limits of quantification.  We want to believe in the importance of numbers and statistics, but we often fail to consider how those numbers are generated, what they actually represent, and how they might be variably interpreted.  And let’s face it, reducing complex realities into a single number is… well, pretty reductive.

David Streitfield´s article “Online Reviews? Researchers Give Them a Low Rating “ takes the perspective that online reviews aren’t very useful, but actually, his article concentrates far more on the related phenomenon of ratings, rather than reviews. “Rating” refers to a numeric score assigned from a given scale, such as 1-5 or 1-10.   In the context of Yelp or Amazon, this number is used to  quantify a subjective evaluation of experience. “Reviews” in contrast, refers to the more qualitative, narrative texts, which are also used to evaluate a subjective experience.  Obviously, ratings are less informative than reviews, because assigning a numeric score to a multifaceted experience such as dining in a restaurant or reading a novel inevitably means reducing a whole LOT of different kinds of information and opinions into a single integer.

Many reviewers are fully aware of the challenges involved in assigning a single numeric score to a multidimensional consumer experience.  As I described in my book,  The Discourse of Online Reviews, some reviewers even go so far as to explain the logic and calculations behind their ratings.   Here’s one of my favorite examples from a  Netflix review of the film, Shallow Hal:

I give it a bunch of stars for being funny, I take away a bunch of stars for being hypocritical, I give it some more stars for trying to deliver a good message, and then take away a few stars for it continuing to be hypocritical.  In the end it averages out to 3 stars.

Furthermore, sites like Amazon and Yelp often provide an composite star rating for each product or service, which represents the average of ALL of the ratings assigned by multiple individuals.  How meaningful are these composite ratings?  Especially when it comes to “experience goods,”  such as novels or movies, where people’s tastes vary so widely?  On a related note, even though I’ve been studying hotel reviews on  Tripadvisor for nearly a decade now, I still can’t tell you how much of a difference there is between a hotel with a rating of 4.6 and a hotel with a rating of 4.7.

So while  I wholeheartedly agree with many of the points made in Streitfield´s article, in order to more accurately reflect his content, the linguist in me wants to change his title to “Online Ratings? Researchers Give them Unfavorable Reviews.

Author Brett Easton Ellis (and the characters of South Park) take on our “rate and review” culture

A couple of weeks ago someone alerted me to a recent episode of South Park, where the show’s characters discover – and become obsessed with – Yelp.  Presented in the program’s characteristic crude and scatological humorous style, the episode satirizes the ways in which the online review dynamic may create a cycle of tension and hostility between consumers and business owners.

South Park

Fiction writer Brett Easton Ellis references this particular episode of South Park in his latest essay, “Living in the Cult of Likeability.” Though his essay tackles the broader issues of reputation management and the construction of relational capital in social media, one of the threads running throughout the essay has to do with the alleged democratization of expertise afforded by online review sites, such as Yelp.  Ellis writes:

The idea that everyone thinks that they’re specialists with voices that deserve to be heard has actually made everyone’s voice less meaningful.  All we’re doing is setting ourselves up to be sold to – to be branded, targeted, and data-mined.

Hmmmm…that’s certainly a paradox that’s worth pondering further.

Ellis continues by discussing his own authorial experiences with critics (“I was liked as often as I was disliked and that was OK because I didn’t get emotionally involved.”), and complains that the opportunity for more and more of us to become “critics” thanks to online review venues has actually created a situation where there are fewer – rather than more – dissenting voices.  Because no one wants to come across as a “hater” (which, according to Ellis, is why we’re always “liking” stuff on Facebook…and why we hope that others will reciprocate by “liking” our posts too.)

Where reviews are concerned, Ellis sort of has a point.  Several studies have found a consistent trend across all of the review sites: there are always more positive ratings than negative ones.  For instance, even the Amazon reviews for Ellis’s HUGELY controversial novel, American Psycho, (which has an overall rating of 3.7)  appear as the standard “J-shaped” distribution: with mostly 5- and 4-star reviews, followed by 1-star reviews, followed by 3- and 2-star reviews. Am Psycho Reviews

Ellis provides many interesting insights about the reputation economy in this piece.  However, I question his nostalgia for the past – the alleged good-old-days before social media, back when “People could have differing opinions and discuss them rationally.”  While it’s true that social media may be exacerbating certain cultural tendencies…my guess is that those cultural tendencies were well-established long before social media came on the scene.

Will anonymous reviews be protected by the first amendment?

This morning’s local paper featured a story about a Tampa lawyer who is involved in legal action over an anonymous online review of her business. She claims that the reviewer was not one of her clients, and is just someone who is trying to ruin her professional reputation, by posting a false review about her on Avvo.com. She is hoping that a Seattle court will (among other things) oblige the review site to disclose the identity of the reviewer.  This is one to keep an eye on, since the ruling on this case may have implications for other sites which allow individuals to post online reviews anonymously.