Too much English spoken!

…or “parle trop Anglais!” to be more precise.  This excerpt comes from a tourist’s review of a Belgian hotel, posted on bookings.com, as reported in a recent article by Patrick Goethals about multilingual online reviews.

This study looked at all mentions of language in 11,000+ reviews of Belgian hotels (in cities located in the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium: Antwerp, Bruges, and Ghent ).

It’s important to pause for a moment here to point out that Belgium is officially multilingual, with three official languages (Dutch, French & German).  Each language is roughly associated with a particular region of the country, as illustrated on this map:

Belgium_Language Map

 

In this study, hotel reviews written by tourists in 3 languages — French, German, and Spanish — were analyzed in order to find out how the 3 different groups of tourists discussed their language experiences in the hotels where they stayed.

The researcher found that, of the 3 groups, the German reviewers commented the least often on language-related issues.  They didn’t seem to care too much about who spoke which language(s) in the Belgian hotels they stayed at.  In contrast, the Spanish reviewers commented the most frequently on language related issues: nearly 8 percent of the 2,500 Spanish-language reviews made some mention of language.  And interestingly, when they did, their comments tended — for the most part — to be pretty positive, as in the following  example:

El personal encantador, a pesar de no ablar español, cosa que queda discuplada por su simpatia y amabilidad.  (Charming personnel, although they did not speak Spanish, which we can forgive them for, thanks to their friendliness and kindness).

Overall, the French reviewers commented on language-related issues just slightly less than the Spanish.  However, when they did, they tended to be the most critical in their language related judgments, as can be seen in complaints like the following:

Rien en francais lamentable!  (Nothing in French — pitiful!)

Obviously the role of context is key here.  For the French reviewers, there seems to be an assumption that since Belgium is a multilingual country — and since French is one of Belgium’s three official languages — staff in Belgian hotels should be fluent in French…even though ALL of the hotels reviewed happened to be located in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium.

It would be interesting to replicate this study with the same 3 language groups in other European (or international) contexts, where none of their languages have an official status. For instance, would the French be as likely to comment on language-related issues when traveling to, say, Turkey, or Poland, … or Japan?

This is an interesting study which uses to travel reviews to tap into peoples’ language attitudes.  It also reveals a tension between multilingualism at the level of national policy on the one hand, and the interactions between language beliefs and the on-the-ground realities of actual language use as they occur in the context of travel, tourism, and hospitality, on the other.

Woman Banned from Yelp! for Breaking Online Community Norms

One of the highlights from this semester has been my Lang & Tech students’ contributions to what I call “Digital Show & Tell.”  Each class session, a different student brings in some sample of internet discourse and explains to us what they find interesting about it.  We’ve talked about copypasta, Tumblr chats, CoffeeDad, Redditt’s photoshop battles, confessions on scarymommy.com, and many other weird, wonderful, creative – and very often, humorous – internet phenomena.

Today’s RDM guest blogger, Judith Bridges, chose to focus on one particular Yelp reviewer, who has been appearing on different social media sites for her uniquely irreverent approach to reviewing.

Judith writes:

My digital show-and-tell is the case of Nathalie Walker who wrote reviews of businesses on Yelp! where she went on dates, basing the review content exclusively on how the date went. If the date was a disaster, that business got 1 star. When the date resulted in a four-and-a-half-year-long relationship, that business got 5 stars.

Nathalie has Instagram  and Twitter accounts, where she posted screen-shots of her disorderly Yelp! reviews to share them with her friends. Below is an image she posted on Instagram of her first four date reviews on Yelp!:

Instagram YelpReviews

 

Soon after, she was notified by a Yelp Support employee named Pam that her behavior disobeyed Yelp’s Content Guidelines. Nathalie used this opportunity to ask Pam out on a date. Nathalie continued to share screenshots of her email dialogue with Pam on social media. Her multimodal communication practices, i.e. sharing screenshots on Instagram and Twitter of her unruly behavior on Yelp, eventually helped her date reviews go viral after Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, Yahoo, Self and other websites featured her hilarious story. She even got positive tweets from ex-boyfriends —  as well as the writer of the song alluded to in the review above.

I believe this example is notable because it shows how in online spaces, there are norms of communication, established by the online community, which regulate the discourse in that particular space. As Kiesler, Kraut, Resnick, and Kittur (2011) point out, “normative behaviors may be codified and articulated or may be left implicit, and they may be contested by some members at times, but most of the time, people will agree about behaviors that are acceptable, and those that are not” (p. 3). Rules for online communication can either be developed, negotiated and co-constructed by  users, or they can be set a priori by  moderators who regulate people’s communicative behavior (Kytölä & Westinen, 2015). When someone disobeys the set conventions in a particular online space, this behavior stands out. In some cases it can be considered trolling, but in  the case of Natalie W, her  unique approach to review writing makes her texts comical. For regulated sites like Yelp!, texts that challenge community norms are removed, but that didn’t stop Natalie W. from continuing the comedy show on other platforms, and this is likely what helped her story go viral.

Blommaert and Varis (2014) explain that virality comes from the re-entextualizations of existing signs, or “meaningful communicative operations that demand different levels of agency and creativity of the user” (p. 16). Although Blommeart and Varis (2014) focus on memes, I would argue that what Natalie W. has done on Yelp! (and sharing the screenshots on other social media) performs a similar action of taking something recognizable, giving it a new and unique twist , and re-contextualizing it across various social media sites.

It’s worth noting that Natalie W. was aware of the impact negative Yelp! reviews can have on a business, especially a small one. This is why she only left these reviews for only large companies who wouldn’t be hurt by a 1-star review, such as a football stadium or Times Square. “If someone decides not to attend Yale University because of a one-star review some bizarre Internet girl wrote on Yelp!, that person probably should not be attending Yale University,” she said.

References

Barnes, Z. (2016, Jan 11). “This woman got banned from Yelp for her hilarious date reviews.” Self.com Retrieved from http://www.self.com/trending/2016/01/this-woman-got-banned-from-yelp-for-her-hilarious-date-reviews/

Kiesler, S., Kraut, R., Resnick, P., & Kittur, A. (2011). “Regulating Behavior in Online Communities.” In R. Kraut & P. Resnick (Eds.) Building Successful Online Communities: Evidence-Based Social Design (pp. 125-178) Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Kytölä, S., & Westinen, E. (2015). “I be da reel gansta”—A Finnish footballer’s twitter writing and metapragmatic evaluations of authenticity. Discourse, Context & Media, 8(1), 6-19.

McNeal, S. (2016, Jan 10). “Woman gets kicked off Yelp after posting a bunch of reviews of her dates.” Buzzfeed.com. Retrieved from http://www.buzzfeed.com/stephaniemcneal/yelp-date-reviews#.hsZwdVEK5

Varis, P., & Blommaert, J. (2014). Conviviality and collectives on social media: Virality, memes and new social structures. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, 108, 1-21.

A Day in the Life… What our Contemporary Digital Practices Look Like

I am teaching “Language & Technology” this semester.  One of the first assignments – drawing on David Barton’s suggestions for writing ‘techno-linguistic biographies’ – asks students to write a journal-style entry in response to the following prompt: “Thinking of yesterday, what digital technologies did you first deal with when you woke up, and how did this continue during the day?  Walk me through your engagement with different online media throughout the day, in a chronological fashion.”

Reading my students’ responses, I am equally impressed by their talent for writing (by this, I mean that each and every response is compelling in its own way), as well with several of the trends that I’m seeing.  I’ve chosen to write about these trends using the collective pronoun ‘we,’ because I believe that many of us go about our daily existence in a similarly mediated (and mediatized) fashion.

So here we go.  This is a composite snapshot of what our typical daily engagement with technology looks like.

90% of us (18/20) are awakened by our phones, which we reach for and “check” for notifications (email, text) and then “scroll” through social media apps.  Several of us do this while we are still in bed, and before we have even had our morning coffee.  The adverbials that appear alongside our descriptions of this activity include instantly, consistently, automatically, first thing, every morning, still half-asleep, and with eyes half-open.

Facebook is still the most frequently mentioned type of social media.  Many of us (8/10) mention “checking Facebook,” yet none of us really conveys a very strong sense of enthusiasm about Facebook  (…as in “I even checked FB” x2).  For those of us who listed our “typical” daily sequence of checking social media accounts, Facebook is the very last one we check. It seems like our growing dissatisfaction with Facebook has to do with a sense that it has been colonized by commercial interests.  As one of us points out “…recently, Facebook has been getting filled with more and more advertisements, viral videos and click bait.”

Checking Facebook almost feels like an obligatory ritual, or a chore.  Only one of us mentions posting a status update.  A handful of us post birthday wishes we have been notified about, and several of us “like” something that’s been posted by someone else.  One of us works in place that posts daily work updates on FB;  one of us has an academic advisor who uses FB as primary mode of communication.

In contrast, Instagram is the social media app we tend to use primarily to communicate with family and friends (for 7/20 of us, anyway), followed by Snapchat (5/20).  Only 20% of us are looking at Twitter today – including one of us who identifies Twitter as the only form of social media used.

Only two of us post photos on social media.  In both cases they are selfies.

Only two of us mention looking at online reviews (Rotten Tomatoes, Amazon).

There are just a few of us (4/20) who use What’s App, but others of us mention using other chat programs.  Only one of us mentions using Skype, and it’s to talk to someone who’s in another country.  Several of us, of course, still use our phone to call people.

Lots of us multitask, like having multiple tabs open at once – the highest number reported is 16.    Also we often interrupt other activities we are engaged in, e.g.: “In the time it’s taken me to write this full paragraph, I’ve stopped to check my email and Facebook twice each, and checked Snapchat on my phone once.”  Or taking breaks during reading (between paragraphs) to see what the family group is chatting about on What’s App.

ALL of us use email and text messages.   Most of us refer to having more than one email account: three seems to be the average.  The majority of us refer to “checking” email and texting on multiple occasions throughout the day.

Many of us use apps for informational purposes, like weather reports, traffic updates, and news.  And to do business (shop, pay bills, do banking).

All of us use technology on a daily basis for educational purposes (Canvas, Google to look stuff up, Google translate, GoogleCalendar and Dropbox). Many of us use technology  for entertainment (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu).  Lots of us use technologies to listen to music at various points throughout the day (often in our cars, or while working out): Spotify, Pandora, Rhapsody, itunes, Youtube.  And the majority of us mentions Youtube – not only for music, but for watching other kinds of videos as well.

Only 3 of us mention our favorite game, which we play regularly.

Social media, for many of us, is an important tool for staying connected with our families and friends (and, as one of us puts it, SM enables us “to feel like [we’re] not alone in cyberspace”). At the same time, several of us admit that we use these platforms as a way to “eat up time” “kill time” and “pass the time.”  We are, it turns out, doing a lot of “checking” “scrolling” and “clicking” in our daily lives.

Finally, about 25% of us refer to deliberately restricting or limiting our use of digital media at different points in our day.

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.

To respond or not…What should businesses do about online reviews?

Last week I spoke with Sparksheet, a content/media/marketing blog, about my research on online reviews.  Among other things, I discussed some factors businesses should keep in mind as they develop a strategy for how to respond to reviews.  Coincidentally, the NY Times just ran a story about this very topic as well.  The main take-aways?

  • Businesses really can turn popular sentiment around by engaging with online reviews/ers in a variety of constructive ways.
  • Completely ignoring online reviews can eventually hurt a business.
  • Canned responses are usually not very effective.  To the extent that it’s possible, responses should be personalized.
  • Getting into a public argument online with a reviewer is usually not the best approach. (But see my earlier posts on “Facebook Reviews” and “People Hate them on Yelp” for some interesting counterexamples.)
  • Reviews and ratings can be powerful marketing tools. Buzzword of the day: it’s all about “relational capital.”

Time references in online reviews

Next month, the “Language and New Media” special interest group  of the British Association of Applied Linguistics will be discussing my forthcoming Discourse, Context & Media article about time references in online reviews.  The focus of my research was on how online reviewers make a lot more references to the remote past, compared to the present and the recent past.  This is in direct contrast to the strong orientation to “what is happening right now” that is characteristic of many other types of social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, blogs).   I also found that remote past references tended to rely more on grammatical resources rather than lexical resources — for example, grammatical aspect, prepositional phrases, and adverbial clauses.  The reverse is true for present-time references, which are usually conveyed via a single word: now, today, just, etc.

The article’s publisher will make my article freely available online from Nov 23-Dec 8, and I’ll be doing an interview with the group’s convenor on Dec. 8, which will be available as a podcast afterwards.  Stay tuned for more details!

Facebook reviews

A few people have recently asked me if I’ve extended my research to reviews of businesses on Facebook.    And my short answer to that question is “no” (for all sorts of reasons) — but since this topic has been coming up a lot in the last few weeks, I’ll admit to being at least a little bit intrigued.

A friend who lives in another state told me about super negative experience she had this year with one of her local financial services businesses. She really wanted to warn others to stay away, but the only review forum she found for this business was on Facebook.  After taking a closer look, she discovered a couple of things – 1) all of the reviews were positive, and 2) it was not possible to post an anonymous review.  (Obviously, these two phenomena are related.)  Now this particular friend is a generally happy, positive person, and one who is not shy about speaking her mind…yet, she didn’t necessarily want to have her offline identity linked via her FB profile to her negative comments about this business.  Since it wasn’t possible to post a review anonymously there, she ended up not posting a review on FB.

A group of angry vegans in Ireland have shown much less caution than my friend.  When a frustrated restauranteur in Dublin posted a rant on Facebook about how vegan customers were being unreasonable in their expectations, a number of indignant vegans fired back in the reviews section of the restaurant’s FB page.  As reported here, the verbal volley between restaurant owner and online vegans continued to escalate on FB, with insults and (pseudo-) death threats growing increasingly more outrageous.  And as more and more vegans posted 1-star reviews, more and more supporters of the restaurant posted 5-star reviews.   In the end, this story went viral, people all over the world have now heard of this restaurant, and business is booming like never before.  Normally, insulting one’s customers online is probably not the best social media strategy for a business to have… but, as this case shows, there are rare instances where this kind of completely-over-the-top behavior leads to an unparalleled level of publicity.

Get your Pumpkin Spice here

This week, RDM shifts from the usual focus on online reviews, as guest blogger Zoë Vercelli addresses one of the hottest topics in social media today: pumpkin spice.

Basic White Girl

 

White Girl Yoga Pants

Zoë writes:

You’d think Florida was on the cusp of a white Christmas, given the recent ubiquity of fall colors, flavors and… marketing strategies. So begins Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte season, a beverage so embedded in American culture that it’s earned its own acronym, the PSL (or at least one that Starbucks hopes will catch on). Anyone in even a casual relationship with social media has probably noticed the schizophrenic oscillations between revering and mocking all things autumnal, played out in dozens of internet memes similar to the ones above. All seem to draw clear correlations between loving lattes and one’s race, gender, and socio-economic status. The PSL trope tells us that pumpkin spice is catnip for White Girls; that a PSL is a dead giveaway that you are a “Basic B*tch”; and that only the upper-middle class (or aspiring) can afford that daily grande latte anyway.

At first glance, one may associate this love/hate relationship as simply reflecting our cultural attitudes toward the Starbucks brand – which introduced the PSL in 2003 – but I believe the memes index much deeper levels of cultural associations. First, the racial: it is clearly assumed that the PSL, and more broadly the notion of pumpkin spice and all things “traditionally” autumnal, are cultural touchstones for the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant pseudo-majority in the United States. Why is that? We as cultural observers sometimes forget the tremendous role that climate plays in shaping our deeply held values and perspectives. Autumn and winter are part of our white European DNA. Don’t believe me? Try to imagine religious Puritanism arising from a hot and sultry region. The cultural construct of “coziness” is a lodestone of tradition for wintry northern European and Scandinavian peoples; the Danish call it hygge, a warm intimacy that a friend describes as “tucking each other in for the winter.” But is it fair to say that “pumpkin spice” indexes an entirely different set of cultural associations for White People than for everyone else?

Caught up in this notion are certainly our gendered attitudes toward the limited roles the aforementioned White Girl can play. In particular, the concept of the Basic B*tch indexes the painful uncoolness of the White Girl – the kind who breaks out the seasonal potpourri, cries during It’s A Wonderful Life, and also speaks fluent Starbucks (so make that PSL a venti non-fat double soy-whip with stevia to go, please). The special viciousness of other women when criticizing the Basic B*tch, if anything, belies a deeper discomfort regarding our own limiting roles, implying there are, at most, a handful of ways to be a Woman, some better and some worse. Even Hillary Clinton attempted to subtly ditch her white uncoolness recently, telling fans during a press conference that she “used to like” PSL.

Finally, simply patronizing Starbucks requires a certain amount of disposable income – a grande will run $4.50 or more – so any socio-economic correlations we sense as a culture are easy to draw. But why is loving autumn and fall flavors associated even further with class? Our cultural construct of autumn indexes concepts of leisure time, elaborate holiday gatherings, and luxurious flavors that were once exorbitantly expensive. Exotic spices such as cinnamon and cardamom were only introduced to the European palate as a result of the spice trade beginning in the Middle Ages with India, China, and (then) Ceylon, and were revered as delicacies available only to the upper class. Is it possible that over a thousand years later, our class associations with these flavors are still holding strong?

Either way, I am a White Girl who dearly loves autumn, but I’ll skip the Pumpkin Spice Latte, thank you very much. I’d just spill it on my new Uggs, anyway – and you can’t get soy whip out of suede.

 

People Hate Them on Yelp

 

A few months ago, I wrote about my interviews with owners and managers of local restaurants – many of whom were not at all shy in voicing their negative opinions about Yelp.  Part of their frustration, I think, comes from businesses’ inability to “opt out” of Yelp.   For example, one manager I spoke with said: “I wish I could remove my business from their site.”  But Yelp lists businesses whether they want to be listed or not.

I just learned about a West Coast restaurant that has been waging an anti-Yelp campaign and exercising its agency in an unusual way: by offering customers a discount if they post 1-star reviews of their business.  Yep, you read that right.  They are encouraging people to write negative reviews about their business on Yelp!

People Hate Us on Yelp

This tactic (which I mean in the Certeauian sense) simultaneously taps into some reviewers’ creativity and desire to write witty, parodic texts.

Here are some highlights:

Terrible.   They would not allow me to bring my own food from home and enjoy it in their warm and inviting dining room.

The service was way too friendly. I had to take a half day vacation due to the options. Way too authentic and reasonable too. Nothing like Olive Garden where you get all that bread and salad.

I don’t understand how this place is still even open! The place is too clean, there’s tons of alcohol behind the counter, and the food is good?

As one reviewer writes: “Brilliant way to stick it to Yelp.”  But at the same time, this tactic creates a conundrum for those reviewers who really do have a complaint with the establishment, since it may be difficult for readers to discern a “real” negative review from the dozens of “fake” 1-star reviews (many of which are ambivalent in the sentiment they express).

 

“drive-by Yelpers” and the Yelp filter

I’m amazed when people who use Yelp haven’t heard about the Yelp filter! For instance, 20 seconds into the trailer for the forthcoming documentary, Billion Dollar Bully,  several Yelp users are shown on camera saying “Filtered reviews? What are those? Are those the bad reviews?”

The short answer is that all reviews posted on Yelp automatically get screened by Yelp’s in-house filtering software.   This software uses an algorithm to determine which reviews seem to be legit (and those are the ones we get to see), and then “filters” those reviews which appear not to be legit (roughly 25% of reviews).  Interestingly, those reviews which have been filtered and identified as suspicious are still available to readers…but in order to view them, you have to scroll aaaaaaaaaallllllllll the way dowwwwwwnnnnn to the veeeerrrrrry bottom of the business’s listing on Yelp and then click on a small bit of text that says “ [# of] other reviews that are not currently recommended.”  How many users will actually bother to do that?  Probably not too many.

Recently, I came across an interesting study  in the online journal, First Monday, which compared a random sample of filtered reviews and non-filtered, visible reviews on Yelp.  While the author found no linguistic differences between the two data sets, he did find that non-filtered reviews tended to be slightly longer than filtered reviews.  He also found that non-filtered reviews were written by authors whose profiles tended to include photos of themselves (this was much less often the case for the authors of filtered reviews) – and that non-filtered reviews tended to be written by people who were prolific reviewers on Yelp with lots of Yelp friends.  The reviews that had been filtered were often written by a person who had only posted  1 review (or a few), and who had no (or very few) Yelp friends. In a story about Yelp from last week’s local newspaper, a Yelp spokesperson calls these kinds of authors “drive-by Yelpers.”