Food wars: Are online food forums a force for good or ripe for misuse?
In today's world, it's hard not to leave a digital footprint behind — especially when Facebook's become everyone's Dear Diary and Twitter, their best friend. With the food industry in Pakistan experiencing an exponential boom in the past few years, it's no shocker that everyone has became a food critic from behind their monitors.
SWOT's Guide for Karachi's Restaurants & Cafes or Karachi Food Diary are not alien terms for most. These are online food forums where people share and discuss their good and bad experiences alike with fellow foodies. Many of us rely on these pages while deciding where we want to dine out on the weekend or which home baker to order a cake from for Mother's Day, and consider it a convenience to have consumer reviews available at just the click of a button.
The flip-side is that discussions on these forums sometimes devolve into messy arguments that could potentially be insulting, or just in bad taste.
With a new restaurant or home cook popping up every few days, questions need to be asked: How do online food forums like the sites above impact the behaviour of both restaurant owner and consumer, and where do we draw the line between constructive criticism and bullying?
Does the illusion match the reality?
Nezihe Hussain, the force behind food group SWOT, talks about how online communities are a positive step: "Online forums are far more honest and real as opposed to food bloggers or food journalists, since these posts are by people who spend their own money when they have commercially available food. In contrast, bloggers and journalists do this [reviews] on invitations and are always provided with free food for those reviews. In comparison, I would take a negative review on any of the online forums far more seriously than a glorified blog or an article."
She adds, "That's the reason SWOT'S GUIDE came into existence. The purpose was never to promote a place where one speaks positively only but to read an honest feedback/ experience of the person who spent money and was either satisfied or not."
The inherent problem with crowd-sourcing reviews is that we don't know if we're crowd-sourcing expertise or just quantity without quality.
A budding food business owner weighs in: "Although a great platform with its heart in the right place, people on these forums don't know as much as they claim to or think they do."
It resembles a cognitive phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect: unskilled individuals rate their own ability more highly, to the point that it is inaccurate whereas skilled people tend to underestimate their ability. Every Tom, Dick and Harry thinks he is Gordon Ramsey, mainly because there is a lack of accountability.
He goes on to say: "The administrators of these groups have formed their own little clique and so I refuse to engage with or advertise on them; giving away freebies or becoming buddies with the right people won't give me the market validation I want. I'd much rather promote my business via word of mouth, it gives me the confidence that I'm actually delivering a worthy product."
There has been speculation about how many of the reviews that go up on these forums are genuine. How do we know if a positive review is coming from a friend of the restaurant owner or a negative one from an enemy?
Speaking as someone who has written a good review for a friends' cafe without really meaning to (guilty!), here's the answer: We don't. We don't know.
Ammara Khan, who is a home baker running Crumbs shares the same sentiment. She shares, "The undeniable drawback of social media is that people can misuse it to project false marketing as there is no way of checking whether the review is original or fabricated."
We've obviously become psychologically hardwired to take everything we read on the internet at face value. The good words people type leave a mark and bad ones are even more memorable, whether we consciously realize it or not.
How do online food groups impact restaurant owners?
I think we'd all agree that one of the hardest things to do to please everyone all the time. Now imagine if it's your job to make sure that every single customer who walks through your door is a happy camper. Sounds hard, doesn't it?
Many restaurants have come under the crossfire time and time again, Xanders and Butlers, to name a couple, on SWOT's and KFD.
Read: Domestic staff at dinner: Restaurant owners in Pakistan speak up
Xanders which is regularly reviewed, is often criticised not for the quality of food but some scandal or the other. In these cases, the criteria for making judgments is all over the place. What's being judged; the food, the ambiance or the staff?
A managing partner of a relatively new joint in Clifton says: "Customers have become extremely critical. It's great to hear feedback; it has definitely propelled us to improve but I feel for the restaurant owners who are not so technology savvy. These people are getting bashed and they have no idea so we don't even get to hear their side of the story or their defense."
A debate that often takes place on these food forum is whether people should resort to public shaming before even trying to contact the management. And then there's the added issue of there being elbow room for abuse. There's talk of customers who hope to hold an eatery hostage with the threat of a bad review looming over them like doom. Freedom, once given, cannot be taken away and there will obviously be people out there looking to manipulate the platform to benefit themselves.
Abid Merchant of Fika reveals, "Since Ramazan began, we've had over 250 customers come in and leave without any complaints yet you don't see anyone singing praises online. These people are the silent observers of the group so the ones voicing their opinions aren't really representative of the majority."
Merchant also says, "In the initial stages, a particularly bad review on KFD did some damage. It took me two months to stabilise business again after that; People don't realize the consequences of their words."
Of course, hygiene and health safety is not to be compromised on. One would expect that local administration be more active in enforcing health and safety standards, but in the absence of well-established official checks and balances, online food groups often serve as judge and jury.
Interestingly, platforms such as KFD and SWOT have also been of monumental help to small scale/home bakers. Yasha Siddiqui of Poached Pear shares: "These pages are excellent for small startups with limited funds for marketing as those companies to heavily focus of product and the cost of marketing is heavy, even online."
He adds, "Of course this leads to other issues like if these forums become the primary source of customers and negative feedback is always a point of caution as in an instant your primary clientele can dissipate. I haven't had any negative reviews yet but if the impact is as significant as the positive reviews then I'm sure small businesses like my own try to avoid it. The flipside to this is that small businesses are constantly motivated to maintain good customer service and high product quality."
When does a bad review become a public service?
Crowd-sourcing reviews is becoming a big part of the decision making process for many diners — and consumers. Before buying a laptop, Karachiites might post on Tech-Aches to figure out where to buy it from or inquire from make-up artists and enthusiasts which lipstick to invest in on Pakistan Beauty Bloggers Community.
While buying the wrong lipstick or cell phone would lead to buyers remorse, it's not going to pose a threat to your life, which is exactly what a review of The Karachi Gliding Club may have deterred.
A non-relevant but pivotal post on KFD was one which narrated an experience where women who had paid to go on the expedition to Balochistan were left stranded on the Kund Malir beach with no cellphone signals. In a volatile country like ours, there's no room for errors of this sort.
Reviews like these make you glad for the intercommunication these forums provide. In the absence of a formalized body regulating consumer standards, it's no wonder people have taken matters into their own hands.
And that comes with a price.
Nezihe says, "Biased reviews will exist while the forums are free to post on."
The thin red line between constructive criticism and outright bashing
The problem with Facebook groups lies in the fact that review moderation is particularly difficult. These are groups for laymen made by the laymen. Unfortunately, there is no way to fact-check each and every review personally on a forum.
So what good is it if you have a 50/50 chance of your experience tilting either way? That would be the case, even if you didn't refer to a review.
A way we can make crowd-sourcing reviews useful is if we use them as a tool for health inspectors, a non-existent designation at the moment, giving them a badge of credibility.
Considering all the "I found a bug in my food!" posts that have been popping up on KFD, this would be immensely helpful in regulating hygiene.
Our contribution to the social media revolution should consist of constructive critique rather than cyber bullying. Well-meaning dialogue between a customer and restaurateur is a two way street — both parties must display mutual respect.
What's absurd is that, this is rarely the case; These discussions often turn transcend into cyber-bullying for no apparent reason.
A member of KFD, who was attacked on the forum recalls: "After I posted a negative review about a certain cafe, friends and family members of the owner started ganging up on me and the whole thing just became so personal and not about the food or restaurant experience anymore. I've learnt my lesson: Unless you have something positive to say, don't say anything at all because people will just rip you to shreds."
It's worth noting that this kind of exchange, which so often devolves into bullying, might not occur if two people were chatting in person, offline. A verbal dialogue comprises of body language cues but online, it's hard to decipher the tone of the participants involved; This misinterpretation often leads to the social network environment to become a hostile one.
An entrepreneur, who runs Tempting Bites by Zee, experienced similar scrutiny on the group and echoed the same opinion: "I totally understand that a customer who has paid for something and has been disappointed has a right to be angry. But once you apologize and offer to compensate them and they still continue bad-mouth you, that's hurtful."
"I was on the verge of stopping sales and shutting down my page but then I realized, no publicity is bad publicity — The more they discussed it, the more likes I got! The product speaks for itself so there's only so much harm people can inflict," she adds.
Although it worked out for her, not everyone is so lucky.
The pressure to present the best possible version of yourself online contributes to us feeling entitled to be rude on the internet — You measure your self-worth based on the amount of likes you get and therefore, your self-esteem inflates disproportionately, which leads to decreased self-control. This freedom of speech online is like being intoxicated; There's just no inhibition.
No wonder our messages and opinions eventually get lost in translation on the web and what starts off as a food review ends up becoming a cat fight about who the restaurant owner is engaged to. It's a no-brainer that crowd-sourced data won't always be the most reliable but in the absence of any official authority policing the industry, we're beggars who can't be choosers.