rumination 33: clicking for stars …

“What is the long-term effect of too much information? One of the effects is the need to be first, not even to be true anymore.”

This was Denzel Washington’s pointed reposte when a sidewalk journalist tried to bait him on the topic of fake news.

Sloppy journalism isn’t a speciality of politics. It plagues every industry. How many times have chefs vented to me in private about some grievance they’ve suffered at the hands of food media: poor fact checking (or no fact checking); jumping the gun on embargoed, time-sensitive information; coercive threats; pay-for-play; biased coverage?

It happens all the time.  And we, collectively, let it happen.

Drawing close the curtains on social media, I have retreated into a quieter world recently, trying to consume as omnivorously as possible, while clicking as selectively as possible.  It’s hard.

Financially rewarded for sensationalist headlines – traffic translates to advertising dollars – websites and publications are encouraged to bait consumers.  I refuse to fall victim to it.

As attention spans thin, so does information. And as information thins, so do attention spans.  It’s a vicious cycle that reduces consumers to Pavlovian triggers on a keyboard.  We’ve become adrenaline junkies, addicted to hype.

What’s our solution?

Revolution.

We need to resist and reject sensationalist fluff – stop clicking on it, stop sharing it.

We need to slow down and educate ourselves.  Education is our biggest challenge to overcoming media deficiencies, primarily because we’ve grown increasingly dependent on media for information.  I’ve written about this before.

Thankfully, there are many sources of information – you included.

The best way to learn is to do.

Eat.  Eat as much as you can afford, and do it without regret.  I have never regretted a meal, however disappointing or, in many cases, tragic.  I have always counted every experience as one more dot that I can add to a growing field of coordinates that help me map the dining landscape for myself.  More importantly, it a gives me a clearer picture of who I am as a consumer, allowing me to explore my own sensibilities, preferences, and dislikes.  This is invaluable information that no one else owns, and makes me a more thoughtful, knowledgeable, and confident consumer.

For information about the tables you can’t afford to reach, seek out the experts.  Just remember: those who speak the loudest usually know the least.

Approach large websites and publications with higher scrutiny. Not only are they heavily reliant upon advertising revenue, but some of them are simply echo chambers that amplify the reality we create. Editors and scouts increasingly rely on us, the consumers, for information.  They don’t have the resources to adequately canvass the growing market.  So they glean information off our social media accounts – without crediting or paying us – repackage it (some do a more honorable job than others), and sell it back to us, only for us to regurgitate it on social media for their profit.  (This is why I’ve put a personal moratorium on giving away anything for free: information, photos, etc.  And I urge others to do the same.)

Be discriminating.  Separate fact from opinion.  Distinguish advertising from enthusiasm.  Seek out the voices of firsthand experience, ones that can speak articulately and impartially about the subject.  I’ll save you some time: you’re unlikely to find them while scrolling through a photostream or slideshow, or in any article that includes the word “best” in the title. I’ll admit, those channels are entertaining and require very little commitment. But they’re usually low on substance too, offering little more than shiny, glittery things devoid of context.

Most of the people I know in the restaurant industry would admit – even if not publicly, at least privately – that the industry’s purported indices of quality are deeply flawed.  Awards, stars, lists, and many critics: if not biased, inconsistent, insular, uninformed, out of touch, self-serving, or smell faintly of corruption, are, at the very least sensationalist.  Their only defense is that the realm over which they hold sway is an expanse of subjectivity, which the loudmouths eagerly rush to fill with their opinions.  And even worse, we hand them the megaphones with which they rule the echo chamber.

Even Michelin, which I have long-regarded as the most reliable standard of quality among the “guides,” has ruined its credibility with me in recent years, diluting the value and prestige of its stars with a populist approach to marketing.  I used to look to their constellations for guidance. Now, I fear veering off course because of them.

So, where to?

Although they seemed to have waned in popularity, online food fora like eGullet, Mouthfuls, and even Chowhound have provided a fairly comprehensive stream of information for years.  You’ll have to sift through a lot of noise and some needless drama, and there are a lot of blowhards online who love to bully and hear themselves write. But, the robust, community interaction these sites offer ensures a reasonable amount of accountability among users. It may take you a while to feel out the other users, but I think you’ll quickly distinguish the bad actors from the voices that should matter most.

Not surprisingly, chefs and cooks are among the most knowledgeable and honest sources of restaurant information I know (despite also being among the most susceptible to media hype in my experience).  I regularly turn to them for advice.

Not all long-format writing is good writing. But long-format writing requires effort. It requires patience of everyone involved. And this commitment forces us to slow down, increases our ability to be thorough and thoughtful, and discourages us from distraction.  Thankfully, I’m seeing a come-back in long-form writing. I’ve noticed editors asking for more in-depth pieces and devoting more space to them.  I applaud this.

Would the bloggers in the house please stand up?  At the very best, they are among the most thoughtful, detailed, and knowledgeable sources of information on the restaurant industry I know.  Sadly, most of my favorite blogging colleagues have abandoned their websites in favor of reaching wider audiences on other platforms.  Although some of them, like me, have parlayed their position into more lucrative work, I think most of us are primarily motivated by passion and amusement rather than profit.  A few of us are still writing when we can. Although my blog has been neglected in these past few years of heavy travel, it remains the love of my life.  You’ll continue to find my thoughts and opinions – advertisement-free – shared at this URL as often as I am able.

As I said earlier, one of the best sources of information is you.  So I’m tapping into the incredible hive mind that hangs around this blog and ask: Who do you trust? Who do you read?  Who’s putting out good work?  Please comment below.

The cost of quality is time.  And we desperately need to invest.  If, as I believe, people deserve the government they have, so too, people deserve the media they have.  It’s time for a revolution.  Start voting with your clicks – withhold them from the fluff and reward those that choose to invest along with us.  We can’t afford not to return to a slower, more meaningful way of interacting.

~ by ulterior epicure on March 12, 2017.

5 Responses to “rumination 33: clicking for stars …”

  1. Great piece, and I totally agree with you.

  2. Good piece. As of late I have relied more on connecting with fellow enthusiasts via email, direct social media or in person. It’s proven to be a better source of sound recommendations. In my experience it also provides solid conversations with directness and sincerity that is often, unfortunately missed in public commentary. Keep up the good work, I always look forward to your writing and pictures.

  3. Your diagnosis is spot on; the big sites are very big on being first, being right is a minor concern. And the newest wave, it seems to me, is sites that try to make food a national subject– which seems to mean either covering clickbait food like the latest monstrosity from Taco Bell, or endless versions of the same local cliches that register nationally (deep dish for Chicago, cheese steaks for Philly, etc.) Because food really isn’t a national subject, but advertising is easier to sell nationally. As someone who’s very locally focused, I have been approached one way or another by many of these sites to contribute, and I just can’t figure out what to pitch them. Either you’re interested to read about food in a place even if you’ll never go there, Saveur-style, or you’re not. But there isn’t a national way to write “This is the local thing that I’m really excited about right now.” Not till they’ve been on Top Chef.

    I think my site, Fooditor, is the kind of thing you want to see, focused on Chicago and somewhat resistant to following the latest trends, at least unless I believe there’s some quality of thought and results behind it. But hell if I know how it gets to profitability in a clickbait food world. You just have to go on love, and support the good stuff and not fall for the bait.

  4. Brilliant! Kathi Plomin

  5. A few times in my life I have been involved in news stories. To see the difference between what was published vs. what I know to have happened was revelatory.

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