The letter seemed to be legitimate. It was hand-written with great sincerity by a reader of "Europe on $5 a Day" who was eager to pass on a secret of smart travel to his fellow Americans. It told about a nightclub in Paris with a spectacular stage show and a sky-high admission charge for persons seated at tables.
But, he wrote, if you stood at the bar and simply ordered a cheap drink, you could see the entire stage show for that small outlay. Management was more than happy to let you stand at the bar to watch the show.
Like a fool, I printed that letter in the next edition of my guidebook, and was almost immediately socked with the most gruesome stories by readers who had relied on it. Most of them were physically ejected--and roughly so--by the burly doormen of the nightclub. Not a single one was permitted to watch the show from the bar and for the price of a single drink. Each was subjected not simply to French curses, but to something close to violence.
I had been taken in by a trickster, an American who wanted to have fun with me and to sketch out a fantasy nightclub run by people who simply loved to have penny-pinching Americans avoid the usual charges of that costly establishment.
That was one of my first encounters with "user-generated" travel content. I had earlier thought I had stumbled on a good thing. I had, for instance, received bushels of letters from readers telling about the phenomenal guesthouses at which they had stayed, and I quickly created a section in each chapter of "Europe on $5 a day" called "Readers' Selections" in which I reprinted verbatim excerpts from those letters.
Once, I even wrote that a "Reader's Selection" was bound to be better than mine. After all, I reasoned, I needed to recommend as many as 30 or 40 guesthouses in a particular European city. But these readers simply remembered one outstanding place--one only, per tourist--that stood out in the course of their European trip. And they favored me by passing along their own most cherished recommendation, with an address and phone number even. It had to be a winner.
It took me a while to realize that many of those letters were fakes, that guesthouse owners were using friends well versed in English to send me letters recommending their particular lodging. And because it was impossible to distinguish the fake letters from the honest ones, I reluctantly and ultimately had to eliminate "Readers' Selections" from all the Frommer guidebooks. And I became a lifelong skeptic about the usefulness of "user-generated" comments in travel advice. I learned, painfully, that "user-generated" content carries the germ of its own destruction, that it can be so easily manipulated by the organizations rated by it that it is generally worth very little--and can occasionally can prove harmful.
Now whenever I express these sentiments to someone engaged in the "user-generated" business, I am usually met with a world-weary sigh and a look of sheer pity, as if I live in another century. I am behind the times, an innocent. The person in question draws a deep breath and says: "You simply don't know how to read user-generated content; you haven't learned certain obvious rules".
They go on to cite various mathematical formulas that, in their own minds, they use to decipher the bewildering statements in a particular write-up that claim a particular restaurant to be the best in the city while others claim the same restaurant to be the worst in the city. "Suppose", they gently advise me, "suppose you read about a place that has received 83 enthusiastic comments and 59 badly critical comments. You obviously follow the comments that enjoy a big mathematical edge. You learn how to weigh the opposing viewpoints, and that way you don't go wrong".
When confronted with the possibility that a sharp hotel or restaurant owner can easily generate 83 enthusiastic reviews or 59 slams of a competitor's hotel or restaurant, my helpful friends simply look away. When told that various public relations firms now instruct hotels and restaurants about how to generate fake reviews, they smile with condescension. What a cynic, they imply. Or worse yet, what a self-interested hypocrite.
So we'll have to leave the debate at that. You'll have to forgive me for relying on the restaurant critic of the New York Times for my own choice of eating places in Manhattan. You'll have to pardon my practice of carrying guidebooks written by experts, long-experienced residents of the city in question, on my own trips. I'm just one of those backward types who values professionals over amateurs. Or skilled journalists over paid letter-writers.