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How Yelp Destroyed the Thrill of Exploring

Zero of five stars! The Internet is loaded with crowdsourced opinions, making authentic, new experiences impossible.

What’s the best thing in your city?

Which mani-pedi place represents the pinnacle of nail care according to the aggregated opinions of hundreds of people ranking all the mani-pedi places on a scale of one to five?

Thanks to online tools like Yelp, you can now know the answer to questions like that. These crowdsourcing tools have transformed the way we experience cities, often for the better — they help us streamline our lives and avoid wasting time with subpar businesses. It’s now easier than ever to avoid bad meals and dingy hotel rooms. Jeff Howe, author of “Crowdsourcing,” sums it up nicely: “I’m a guy with three jobs and the parent of nettlesome little children,” he says. “I don’t really have time for a lot of bad experiences.”

But for all Yelp’s virtues, pre-screening every experience can inhibit us, too. These days, many of us wouldn’t think of trying a new hairstylist or hotel without first checking others’ impressions online. “There’s something about Yelp that creates hesitancy,” says Howe. “Before going to a trivia night at an East Village bar I check out the bar’s Yelp page to see what others have said about it, what it looks like, what types of people go there — what I’m essentially looking for is, does this look like me? Do people like me go here?”

I know exactly what he means. I pre-screen everything these days. Usually I’m trying to avoid feeling awkward — I’ve ended up at too many bars where I’m the only patron who remembers life before cable. Last year I decided not to attend the annual Time’s Up! “Fountain Ride” after a  YouTube videoof one of the past rides convinced me I’d feel insufficiently artsy.

But am I dodging uncomfortable situations, or missing out on great ones? “The efficiency that the Web has brought has downsides,” says  Edward Tenner, a historian of technology and culture. “On balance, it works against happy accidents.” Tenner calls this counter-serendipity: when preconceived notions prevent lucky flukes. For instance, a poorly rated restaurant on Yelp might have a few die-hard fans — outliers who, for whatever reason, love the place. Their reviews might even be posted. But many of us go with the general consensus, writing off anywhere with a three-star ranking or less. “Is it possible that a place you really would have liked doesn’t have many positive comments, but you would have been one of the few positive ones?” asks Tenner.

Even if the ranking doesn’t deter us, by the time we do go to the club or the restaurant, we’ve sometimes seen so much of the place online that we’ve basically pre-experienced it. Having online access to so many venues might make us more adventurous in one sense, prompting us to try things we never would have tried or even have known about. But in another sense, it becomes a less-adventurous adventure, certified for us by hundreds of others who’ve already checked it out, assured us we’ll like it, testified to its quality, cleanliness and safety.

This isn’t the same, by the way, as choosing a restaurant based on a review in the paper. Now  everything is reviewed — every bar, every corner store — everywhere, all the time. And if Yelp’s popularity is any indication (the site posted its  20 millionth review last July) our need to check these reviews before doing anything is becoming a borderline addiction. When you can no longer have a drink at a bar that wasn’t first vetted by 83 strangers, spontaneity — which, in some ways, is one of the best things about life in the city — is lost.

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