Please don’t be That Guy on Yelp

According to my Yelp profile, I am on my second year of being Elite in the Washington, D.C., area. I like Yelp because it combines two of my favorite things: writing and dining out. While I use Yelp mainly for fun and to keep track of where I’ve been, I understand that it carries weight in many places.

I always write my reviews in good faith, and I’ve written them for a number of popular D.C.-area restaurants (including Rasika, Graffiato, Jaleo and Founding Farmers), as well as places in Kansas City, Boston, the UK and Paris. I try to write them as soon as possible after my experience, so the information is fresh and accurate.

Attempting to leverage my so-called Elite status to get additional swag, whether it be perks, better service or freebies, has never crossed my mind. For one thing, I can’t imagine the inflated sense of self-worth necessary to do that. For another, I’m still a journalist who believes, like any good professional critic, that a review is only worthwhile if you’re treated like everyone else. For a third, I’m not a scummy human being.

Jezebel today shared a story about a guy who’s setting up a business plan that revolves around, more or less, extorting businesses based on him being a reviewer for sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor. (The original Los Angeles Times stories is behind a paywall, sorry!) He’s distributing the “ReviewerCard,” the idea being that if you flash it and promise to give a good review, businesses will offer discounts, extras and the like. He brags about getting discounted hotel rates by promising to give a good review — the logical conclusion and underlying threat, real or not, being that if he doesn’t get preferential treatment, he’ll write a bad review. The actual quality of the business does not seem to play a role in his reviews; it’s what he can get out of it for himself.

After reading the story, I mostly hoped that Yelp would catch wind of it and disable his account. Professional critics take great pains to avoid being recognized or getting preferential treatment, because they want their experience to mirror that of a regular person’s as much as possible. The idea of New York Times or Washington Post writers telling the hostess that they’re critics, so that fromage plate better be on the house if you know what I mean, is unfathomable. What this guy is selling as “win-win” is really just him being greedy.

Enjoy sites like Yelp for what they are — something that is supposed to be fun, informative and social. Don’t be a tacky egotist who believes that being Elite entitles you to $25 off your bill or whatever.

Check messages, update status, register to vote

Almost two years ago, I wrote about how voting should catch up to today’s technology — why can’t we vote on our iPhones or Droids? That hasn’t happened yet, but an announcement earlier this week gave me hope that maybe some people are finally getting it.

Washington just became the first state to let people register to vote using Facebook. The article shows that Washington, already leading the way in online registration, is aiming to reach young voters with this initiative. The app would “fill in” a lot of information pulled from the Facebook profile, minimizing the legwork the registrant would have to do.

I think that’s pretty brilliant.

My interest in social media has three basic prongs: travel, journalism and political engagement. Anything that can encourage people, especially those in the fickle 18-34 demographic, to register to vote should be applauded. I hope that the app is a success and other states follow Washington’s example.

It isn’t so much that this is groundbreaking, even though it is. I wonder why no one has implemented this before now. Roughly 70% of Internet users in the U.S. use Facebook (and that’s data from a year ago; the number could have increased). It’s a vast, relatively untapped source of constituents.

Obviously this registration doesn’t guarantee that people follow through by actually voting, but it’s a start. I’m sure there are ways — alerts, messages or ads — to remind people to vote, even giving them some notice a few days beforehand.

Technological archaism, especially where young adults are concerned, is a legitimate complaint about America’s voting system. If America wants its young people to be engaged voters, it should show a willingness to engage them as well. Facebook touches all aspects of our personal and professional lives (for good or ill), so why not our civic lives? Good for Washington for taking the first step.

Exploring a new home through social media

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

Two weeks from tomorrow, I’m moving to Washington, D.C. I signed my lease (I’ll be in the Petworth neighborhood of northwest D.C.), I’m reading POLITICO Pro’s articles and briefs as “homework” and I’m wading through my benefits paperwork.

I’m doing homework of another kind, too. Namely, the homework of getting acquainted with the city in which I’ll be living. Even though I’ve been to D.C. twice in the past month, I want to make sure I know what I’m getting into when I move. I’ve done the D.C. tourist thing, so travel guides won’t really help. For this mission, I turned to Twitter.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve added food trucks, restaurants, clubs, media, sports teams and figures to my TweetDeck, with a column reserved just for D.C. stuff. I think it’s working well — I’m getting familiar with the lay of the land and what it offers, even though I’m not even there yet. I’m hoping that once the move is permanent, I can use what I’ve learned about the city so far to make the most of it right from the start.

I recommend this strategy to anyone moving to a new city. Find people and places that interest you, and follow them. See if Foursquare offers a city badge for your area and what venues are listed. Map everything and get a good visual understanding of your area. Download mass transit apps. Check schedules for the local sports teams. Message people already in the city and ask their advice about what’s good. In other words, be proactive. You can get into a city before you actually get into a city.

In the meantime, enjoy this photo of the Lincoln Memorial, one of my last “tourist” shots of the city.

Gawker, what did you DO?

I love Gawker. I’ve read it for a few years, since my finals years at KU. It has a wonderful combination of snark and basic content curation. Two things made it stand out: its writers and its comment section. The latter, though, has been dropped on its head.

Gawker’s old-old comment section involved first-time posters replying to posts and/or adding comments to “try out.” Veteran commenters could approve those comments, giving new posters their feet through the door. Such veteran commenters would earn stars, and those stars gave them certain privileges, namely approving new commenters and promoting quality comments. As a poster, you could follow your favorite commenters and be followed in turn.

A few months ago, the old-old system was canned and replaced with a free-for-all. Commenters lost their stars and approval privileges. Spam could be dismissed in the comments section, and “featured” discussions with several replies were pulled out of the larger pile. A definite change of pace from the older system, but not bad.

Cue last week’s announcement by tech writer Adrian Chen, explaining the new commenting system, which involves a crazy, not-intuitive-at-all, carpal tunnel-inducing labyrinth. Instead of getting a clear view of all original threads in one vertical swoop, such threads are now available on a single-click basis, with their replies underneath them. Describing it only makes it sound more confusing, which is the point — it’s nearly incomprehensible and it’s only been in the past day or two that I finally figured it out. The response has been near-universally negative, with many veterans swearing that they’re leaving.

The question now is, what’s next? Is Gawker going to blink and go back to one of the older, more likeable commenting systems? Will it simply ride out the criticism until people get used to it? Will it admit that the change was an error? I really don’t know. I can’t see this new system working; major-traffic threads can easily accrue hundreds of comments, each one necessitating its own click. It’s a chore, it takes the fun out of posting, it’s hard to follow and it takes a four-step article to explain it.

Gawker has a talented stable of writers — I like reading Chen, Hamilton Nolan and Caity Weaver, and was sad to see Richard Lawson, Maureen O’Connor and Brian Moylan go — but its comments have always been a huge, huge draw for the site. I will definitely be paying attention in the next few months to see how the commenting system changes, if it does. It may prove to be a valuable lesson in terms of Web design, development and user relations.

Does Facebook’s disappointment put social media at risk?

Facebook went public last week to much fanfare. Less-welcome news is that the company’s stock has been lagging, with a weak closing last Friday, May 18.

When it comes to scope and sheer volume of users, Facebook is the obvious juggernaut in the room. But as a Wall Street Journal article today suggests, the lukewarm reaction to its IPO could negatively affect other social media companies who might have also been planning their own public offerings. The idea is, if Facebook struggles, why expect other companies to do well?

The WSJ article quotes an IPO author who suggests that Facebook’s struggle could indicate that social media has hit a wall. Carrying capacity has been met, and perhaps the tech industry should move on to something else.

I suspect though that the real culprit here is probably unrealistic expectations. Perhaps the IPO was valued too high, and it had nowhere to go but down or ever-so-slightly up. In that sense, Facebook is simply a victim of its own success, of starry-eyed newcomers who just need to come back down to Earth. There’s talk of a bubble, but the tech press and investors helped create it with sheer hype, only to complain that a bubble exists at all. In economics, expectations are just as crucial as actual events and can even influence those events. If no one bets on social media companies because they don’t believe they’ll flourish, then it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So rather than discourage social media development, perhaps the wiser course would be to continue social media innovation, tempered with more realistic financial goals. The primary focus should always be on providing a worthwhile experience for the user and building quality symbiotic relationships with brands. If social media companies do that, the rest will follow. It’d be tragic if future good ideas were stymied by the Facebook rut — so set it aside and keep on trucking.

And remember that bubbles that are never overblown don’t pop.

How to use a Facebook cover photo

One of the biggest lessons I learned when first studying social media and multimedia production was, “Follow the eyeballs.” Know where your audience members are looking, what draws their attention and how you can take advantage of it.

Today, Mashable published an interesting piece about Facebook’s Timeline pages for brands vs. the old generic brand pages, using an eye-tracking study. The study found that viewers were less likely to notice sidebar ads on a timeline page, that there was less immediate interaction with the Timeline content (i.e. the new Wall) and that quantitative data measures (Likes, Followers, etc.) are now much more prominent.

The biggest takeaway, though, was the awesome power of the cover photo. Cover photos are new to Timeline, and are found on both personal and brand pages. The eye-tracking study found that everyone — everyone — looks at the cover photo. It’s the prime page real estate, choice material that on an old page would be dominated by the more content-rich Wall.

So why are so many brands wasting this space by filling it with nothing? Take the Huffington Post. The site’s flagship brand page actually has a decent cover photo, of the newsroom. Or more specifically, it’s a photo of people in the newsroom — the Mashable article also notes that cover photos with people in them are better at drawing and keeping viewers’ attention. A similar cover photo adorns its UK page. But on some of its other sub-section pages, the cover photo space goes to waste. HuffPost Religion, HuffPost Denver and HuffPost Books, for example, have generic titles on a colored backdrop. Gawker’s page isn’t much better, with a graphic of the site’s logo.

Considering the study, I offer up a few suggestions for brands looking to maximize the potential of their Timeline cover photos.

1. Don’t repeat anything that can be just as easily seen in your profile photo or in the basic information section directly beneath your cover photo.

2. Use people whenever possible. Even if they’re Muppets (yes, that page was one of those featured in the Mashable article).

3. Don’t be afraid to make use of text, especially if that text conveys information and/or cross-promotes the brand’s other social media profiles. The New York Knicks make great use out of points two and three with their cover photo — it includes both J.R. Smith (a face) and a hashtag for fans to use on Twitter.

4. Keep it fresh. Sports teams can include hashtags for games or playoffs, or information about their next matches. Companies can update their cover pages with newly introduced products, or craft them to fit new marketing campaigns’ visual styles. Newspapers and magazines can use actual staff photos that accompany prominent/centerpiece stories. No brand, be it a news agency, a sports team, a corporation or anything else, is ever completely sedentary. Neither should their cover photos.

The cover photo block is the biggest thing on the page and it will be seen, even if the viewer misses the Timeline, the ads or the metrics. Make sure that the photo does your brand justice.