December 31, 2011

Review of Reviewing

If I've learned anything the past few days, it's that the quickest and easiest way to get blog hits is to do a review. It's also proven to be the best (only?) way to generate significant comment traffic. This is not revelatory, nor is it hard to guess why. People Google a thing, perhaps with the word "review" attached, and click whatever comes up. If it's this blog, so much the better.

This raises an interesting question, however: Who the hell asked me?

This point can be extrapolated to most any review writer, of course, but me being me, I'm going to focus on me. I think it's only fair, if I'm going to call in to question anyone's credentials (and possibly, to an extent, everyone's) that I start at home.

I remember the first time I was contacted to do a review. Or rather, I don't remember the specific instance. What I do remember is the sensation. I was a bit giddy, and more than that, flattered. Someone wanted to know what I though, not just of a coffee in general, but of their coffee. They wanted my opinion, which I had already been inclined to give. Only now, it had been lent a dose of credibility.

Or had it? This is a question I've wrestled with for a while now, and not yet come to a decent answer. How do we establish credibility? Who decides what opinions matter? After all, a customer might try some of the single origin beans from Broadway Cafe that I serve at work, and declare them awful. They would be "wrong", because there is something of a consensus that Broadway makes some sweet coffee. And they do - at least according to me.

But again, why do I get to decide? I have been in the biz for several years now, and I have read most everything available on the subject. I'm informed, no doubt. And I do consume both a great deal of coffee and a great deal of variety. My palate is well traveled, and well versed in what coffee should taste like.

That experience matters, probably, insofar as it lends a touch of real world credibility to whatever coffee related stuff I write. But I think it's the writing itself - and more importantly, the fact that anyone reads it - that creates the real authority. In that sense, this whole business is a bit like money. A one hundred dollar bill, by virtue of its materials, is worth next to nothing. It is not worth one hundred times the amount of a one dollar bill, certainly. And yet it is, because we have all agreed to accept it as such. By out collective cognitive dissonance, we have made this reality.

What this means, specific to the discussion of reviews, is that the only way an opinion matters, is if enough people think it does. Starbucks would never concern itself with something I wrote, because not enough people read me. But were Oliver Strand to crucify a company policy in the New York Times, that would merit a response, or at least some action.

If this all sounds a bit Orwellian, well, it is. 2+2=5, if we all say it does. To be right is to have the majority say you are. At least in terms of coffee quality, this is the case. There is no objective truth, nothing that is provably good or bad. Broadway's Yirgacheffe is the former, a decaf soy latte the latter, however, and no one would dare argue the point.

This is part of the reason why, typically, my reviews say nothing of how a coffee grades on some imagined scale. I'd rather focus on describing the characteristics of it, and let you decide if it's something that sounds appetizing. Because, though there are certainly rules about what one is supposed to like, the truth is rarely that simple. I've confessed an affection for the occasional quick 'n dirty cup of coffee, and however much I might deride them (never out loud, of course), the decaf soy latte drinker possesses perfectly valid tastes.

So, who asked me? All that matters, really, is that enough people did. Hopefully, they continue.

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