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Essays at the intersection of marketing and life.

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24th
February
2020

Why I’m Sacking TripAdvisor

In brand-building, it can be fun and instructive to have enemies. We understand better what we’re for through the act of standing against. Adversaries are the incubators of innovation, and their darkness illuminates the path to light.

Take a look at some of the interesting brands and cool people that surround you. Lurking behind their success may lie a delicious enemy or two. 

Supermac’s is the basic idea of McDonald’s, perfected for 53° latitude; The Happy Pear takes plant-fuelled morning swims just to spite those listless Carnivore Oppressors; Greta Thunberg is confessor-in-chief for the Earth’s eco-sinners; Foil, Arms & Hog are the authentic accent of Dublin humour, under siege from a Comedy Central factory which churns out rehearsed, dislocated one-liners. 

As people with agency, we naturally create a list of brands we love and those we, for fair or foul reason, love to hate.  

I hope you’re tending to your brand enemies and giving them the opprobrium they deserve. What’s the point in swanning around being agreeable with the world when you can enjoy the mescal-whiff of revolt? 

Today you find me at sixes and sevens with one brand in particular. I’m itching for a punch-up.

I hate TripAdvisor. I’ve been using it for years, and it has just crystallised how much I damn well resent it.

Here’s why.

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(1) TripAdvisor tells me what the average fellow-traveller, on average, finds interesting. 

Let’s just examine that. 

I’m in a city that’s not my own, and I decide to take only the advice of those who don’t know it either. And then I dilute things further by dividing it all by the number of people who bothered to give feedback.

The result of following TripAdvisor recommendations is not excellence. It is blandness. TripAdvisor is travel industry Prozac, intended to dull the user’s affect.

And this is so unfair. Because no one believes that they deserve ‘average’. Indeed, mathematically, there is no such thing as an ‘average person’. It is a concept of central tendency, not a human reality. It is never you, and it is never me. 

(2) TripAdvisor is not about mind-expanding travel, it’s about fear-based tourism. Its implicit hypothesis is that danger and risk lie everywhere. The tourist is an alien, and his principal job is to avoid adverse occurrences. The hidden cost (un-noted, un-mourned) is to forgo all the great stuff – adventures, follies, glories. 

The Green Owl-ed Nanny will take you under her wing, and lead you to where other people go; to do what other people do; and to resolutely feel what other people feel. Which, on an average day, is nigh-on nothing at all. 

(3) TripAdvisor despises expertise. It is singularly uninterested in what the true custodians of a city, its citizens, may think. Don’t be persuaded by its ‘local guide’ trope which features in the comment threads. Even funeral parlours have window-dressing.

This global behemoth – created by the same American generation that brought us Facebook, which screws our society in a quest for profit; and Google, which screws our privacy in search of power – has the effect of silencing joyful human interaction between genuine local people and genuine visitors. 

It is shocking how often I travel to a city and fail to speak to a single native person who is not also taking my money.

This creates hermetically sealed travel and a manipulated traveller, visiting ghettoised Temple Bar-style creations, whilst residing in industrially-provided Airbnb accommodation, inlaid with IKEA chic. 

Now that many of us are conscientiously wondering about becoming vegan, perhaps we should spare some compassion for ourselves. We have long been treated as battery hens by elements of the tourism industrial complex. 

(4) TripAdvisor is the enemy of imagination. It loathes a diamond in the rough. Its algorithm is outraged by a discovery that is not fully exploited. The Canny Owl has invented an extraordinary world of refracted self-interest, and calls it ‘reputation’. TripAdvisor will hunt down Wonder itself, drag it to a zoo and beat it into submission under the glare of visitors who genuinely hoped to see something wonderful. But they got only to see a facsimile of Wonder; the same one as everyone else. 

(5) TripAdvisor hates travellers. This is an unintended consequence, presumably, which makes the conclusion no less valid. Why else would they be so flagrantly disinterested in quality experiences, and so positively disposed to bland transactionalism? Its true relationship and source of income is with the tourism industry – those businesses which have discovered that bland, executed to perfection, keeps the wheels turning. I suspect it is a relationship of resentful bondage, where the travel industry knows the chokehold power of reviews and has little choice but to play the game and game the system.

*******  

So that’s my tirade. I’ve ditched the owl from its App-perch.

But what of solutions?

Here, I must admit that it is easier to vent than to fashion actual alternatives. But I’ve taken a go, nonetheless. This new approach is not for functional [often professional] travel when banal efficiency is what’s called for. No. This is for the travel I care about.  

MY POST-TRIPADVISOR MANIFESTO

When I travel, I will trust myself, and curate my own advice. I will do my homework, engaging with the locals of wherever I intend to travel. And yes, of course that’s possible. I will seek accommodation away from the city centre hot spots. I will improvise when I arrive, favouring my intuition and dampening the impulse for control. When I return home, I will share stories with my friends. I will not broadcast my personal and treasured experiences into a cavernous, money-making Review Machine. This does not benefit ‘the herd’. Rather, it weakens it. And I will revel in my cockups as much as my glories, knowing that each imposter is wholly of my own making, and so much more interesting than bland.  

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