I’m realizing that what began in 2012 as a fun activity (writing a food blog with my homie, Thu), may actually be a cry for help: A team of Stanford researchers – including Professor of Linguistics, Dan Jurafsky – recently published a report with startling new evidence of intense, unresolved emotional issues evident in online food reviews.
The Stanford group collected data from 887,658 english-language Yelp reviews of 6,548 restaurants, covering dozens of varieties of cuisine (from lowbrow to high-class). Details include the length of the review, the average length of each word, the types of words, reviewer’s gender, the cost of the meal, and more. Makes perfect sense: Yelp is one of those examples of a helpful tool that can strengthen the online community with constructive feedback, but is basically just dominated by attention-starved lunatics. Are food bloggers any different?
The results of the Stanford study are surprising: One-star reviews are typically “trauma narratives”, focused on poor interactions with restaurant staff and worded as if the reviewer is working through some deep emotional scarring. Positive reviews of many lower-cost cuisines tend to highlight a similarity to druggie terminology (think: William S. Burroughs reviewing a waffle taco). Positive reviews also tend to feature dessert prominently, and lean towards hyper-sexualized wording (“that cheesecake was orgasmic!”) in order to “emphasize the reviewer’s credentials as a sensualist”.
I’m most interested in the “drug metaphor” findings. The data seems pretty clear that druggy references are more likely to be used for fast food, junk food and…. basically “lowbrow” food (my kind of food). Stanford’s research shows that this high-sodium, fatty cuisine really speaks to a particular food-reviewer phenomenon: Food as “crack”. Fast, cheap, and out of control.
High on the list of druggy descriptors is the term “comfort”. I’m guilty of using comfort to describe pretty much everything that I enjoy, and I think that the one common denominator for me here is “food that I mindlessly shovel in my mouth”. I continue shoveling the comfort, and saying “Mmmmmm!”, until I’m left feeling very uncomfortable, especially in the waistline-area.
And then, there’s sex. Yelpers love to talk about the ol’ horizontal mise en place. This is probably the least surprising revelation. The number of Yelp reviews mentioning the sensual qualities of a dish is staggering. Ranging from “seductively seared foie gras” to “sumptuous, sexy, orgasmic food”. I guess when you’ve truly enjoyed a meal, and you’re at a loss for words, you really want to hammer it home (so to speak). What better way to get the reader’s attention? For example, after dining at Wolfgang Puck’s WP24, I breathlessly exclaimed to the server that my Crispy Suckling Pig was “totally puckable”.Desserts figure prominently in the study. Positive online restaurant reviews frequently include glowing mentions of decadent desserts. Nearly one in two positive reviews gives a shout out to a creamy and/or crunchy, sweet, post-dinner treat. I’m less inclined to get on board with this particular finding: I’m only able to actually afford a dessert 25%-50% of the time that I go out to eat, anyway. In fact, if the dinner was bad, chances are that I wouldn’t want to stick around for a surely disappointing slice of pie.Crappy customer service is the common trait among negative reviews. One-star reviews focus on the interactions with staff and time spent waiting for something to happen. The language of these negative reviews favors the wording of a petulant 6-year old, and Stanford’s team likens this to a trauma narrative that helps the reviewer cope with “face threats”, and long-forgotten emotional scarring. Basically, taking poor customer relations extremely personally. The food is mostly forgotten in these one-star rant-fests, and I can get behind that. Who cares about the food if the person serving it to you sucks?When a Yelper reviews a more expensive restaurant, the words get a bit longer. The result of this, of course, is that the review ends up being longer, too. Duh! Stanford makes the case that the increasingly complex words is a sign of the reviewer “adopting the stance of a higher socio-economic class”.
The proof is in the pudding, right? Wrong again, crimson douches. The longer words/longer reviews is a sign of the reviewer attempting to justify spending so much damn money on a dinner when he could have just mainlined a crack-licious pizza delivered to his apartment by his pusherman. Instead of experiencing the titillating foreplay – waiting for that steamy 16″ (in diameter) to arrive at his doorstep – and going through the DTs (Domino’s Thirst).
Stanford is way off the mark. Online restaurant reviews are our way of working through our obsessions with food. When we enjoy something, we try to think of ways to get people off their asses and go experience it. Hence the sex, drugs, and rockin’ thesaurus. I appreciate your detailed study, Stanford brainiacs, but you can stick it right in your control variable. Now, what does that say about me?