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OP-ED: Online Reviewers Should Not Get Special Treatment

The Internet is filled with amateur reviewers: bloggers, chowhounds, yelpers, tweeters, and trip advisors. Few of us would eat at a restaurant or stay at a hotel without checking some reviews and ratings beforehand. (And most of us know to take them with a grain, or a hill, of salt.) But should some online reviewers be getting special treatment at the places they choose to review?

Brad Newman thinks so.

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Newman, a California-based entrepreneur, has invented the ReviewerCard, an exclusive membership card for online critics whose provenance was inspired by the shoddy service he received on vacation. Cardholders are encouraged to flash their ReviewerCard, which boldly says "I Write Reviews," to service staff (waiters, front-desk agents, and the like). According to its website, the pass, which conspicuously resembles the American Express "black" card, ensures that members "will get to enjoy the premium service they deserve, while continuing to provide insightful, honest, and valuable reviews to other customers." In other words: The restaurant or hotel in question will be forced to heap freebies and fawning service upon these reviewers and presumably not throw boiling-hot soup in their faces.

A ReviewerCard

Of course, there is nothing insightful, honest, or valuable about the ReviewerCard.

Holding some online sway is hardly a reason to get preferential treatment or an ever-elusive upgrade. Not only does the card acknowledge to your server or concierge that you're as handout-hungry as a C-list celebrity, but it also guarantees a false experience that the rest of the world might not receive. Furthermore, whipping out a ReviewerCard could be seen as some sort of thinly veiled threat: "Give me your best or I'll review you poorly" (or worse, "Give me free things or I'll give you one star/bubble/point"). Since when is it OK to hold your provider hostage for good service or cushy upgrades?

This leads to the sort of dishonesty that many readers fear when browsing online reviews. Worse, it threatens the "anyone-can-do" ethos of online-review communities. It's hard enough to verify the truthfulness of your average reviewer; we shouldn't have to suss out which one-star reviews are really the result of a waiter failing to acknowledge self-styled VIPs as the special sparkly snowflakes they are.

That's not to say that the only "good" reviewers are the professional ones (they're not), or that amateur reviews aren't useful (they are, definitely). It's just that the non-pros aren't beholden to ethics standards: No one is required to disclose that their five-star review is the result of elite self-identification and not at all representative of your average Joe's experience. And while Newman maintains that the card "is not intended for freebies, but rather to ensure the experience goes seamlessly for everyone," the only thing that it ensures is that some people will receive better service than others.

As of press time, at least 100 reviewers have snapped up the card, although it's been getting a healthy amount of backlash online. At its launch, membership carried a $100 fee, although yesterday Newman announced via press release that it would be free … to the select few who are approved.

Regardless of its price tag, hopefully reviewers will see the ReviewerCard for what it is: a shameless, grafty, grabby attempt at entitlement—and swag.

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