Why TripAdvisor SHOULD be “political”

This post was originally published on my first travel blog on 14 March 2015.

TripAdvisor has been in the news in the UK this week, after removing a review where a customer highlighted the inappropriate behaviour of a Bedfordshire restaurant manager towards his female staff, saying that it “breached guidelines which asks reviewers to refrain from personal political, ethical or religious commentary” and was “irrelevant”. The reviewer was later allowed to repost it, leaving the details of the incident in but without referring to “International Women’s Day” or “feminism” as she had originally. The original post also attracted a response from the “manageress” which accused the reviewer of spreading her “boring, inaccurate and feministic views” rather than reviewing the restaurant (this too has now been removed). This whole incident has prompted debate about what reviewers should be allowed to say on the site, and whether TripAdvisor is correct to claim that such comments are neither helpful nor useful.

Looking at the user review guidelines on TripAdvisor, the first rule is “No profanity, threats, prejudiced comments, hate speech, sexually explicit language, or other content that is not appropriate for our community”, with further guidance going into detail about profanity, personal insults and hostile or violent language. The original review contained none of the above. Think about it; how many times have you read a review on TripAdvisor where someone complains about the personal manner of the waiting staff or manager towards them or other visitors? The establishment may post a snotty response in return, but both the review and response remain. Indeed, the amended review still clearly explains what happened, just without any description of the manager’s behaviour being misogynist, even though the reader can clearly draw that conclusion themselves from what the review says. So why is TripAdvisor so scared of allowing reviewers to explicitly engage in discussion of political and societal context?

Everything is political. I was reminded of this recently when I attended a virtual event on radical information literacy – information literacy being something I teach and facilitate in my job as a librarian – which reinforced the fact that information literacy is not just about students being able to find academic articles amongst the rubbish on Google, but about all of us being able to make sense of the world around us, the communities we live in, and to look at it all critically and make our own interpretations and conclusions. In every interaction we have, every journey we make, physical and metaphorical, in everything that we do, we are operating within a context of dialogues, history, societal expectations, and present current events.

Which brings me to TripAdvisor’s argument that “No content that is not relevant to trip planning and research” will be permitted; further guidance refers to the “No personal political, ethical, or religious opinions, discussion or commentary in reviews” rule that it was deemed the original review breached. I argue that as everything is political, it is impossible to claim that such discussion is “not relevant”. There is much talk now of “responsible travel” and “ecotourism”; travelling the world and visiting other places in a way which does not harm them, as we all have a responsibility towards other human beings and our natural world. But this responsibility extends to everyone everywhere, even closer to home, even when it might seem a like a minor thing. Just as I want to know if my visit to an attraction in another country is ethical, I want to know whether I am giving my money to an establishment which harasses or abuses any member of staff. Travellers and visitors should not be automatons, taking what they want from a city, hotel, restaurant, whatever, and ignoring the hints of what goes on behind the scenes, and I believe the majority are not. Thus, so-called “political” discussion is very relevant.

TripAdvisor has nothing to be scared of. It already hosts a disclaimer saying it does not “endorse” any reviews or responses. It already allows descriptions of unpleasant behaviour and hostile exchanges between reviewer and establishment to remain on the site, and readers are not stupid; they can think critically and reflect on the implications of what they are seeing for themselves. So if TripAdvisor wants to stay credible and relevant, it needs to realise that people can and should make their own judgements on what they read and to allow open discussions – which, as in the case of this one, will otherwise just move, potentially very publicly, to social media – about the issues encountered by reviewers to take place.

Oh, and at least from all of this…I and many others around Bedford are all very aware of which local restaurant not to give our custom to. Cheers, TripAdvisor!

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