Just one of many bad reviews that can be found on TripAdvisor
Just one of many bad reviews that can be found on TripAdvisor

Uber drivers fight back: the companies writing online reviews of customers - and why we kind of deserve it

Just as we're prompted to rate companies, they are now rating us, too. And if we get ourselves a bad reputation the service can be withheld, says Rhodri Marsden

Rhodri Marsden
Thursday 05 February 2015 01:00

Last weekend I visited Belfast for the first time. As uneasy as I felt about gawping at the way people live in a divided city, I paid for an historical tour of the Falls and the Shankill which was described as "unbiased" by a reviewer on TripAdvisor. My guide wasn't bad, but it quickly became evident that his viewpoint was as partisan as that of a diehard football supporter. He tried to engage me, but I remained somewhat distant as I tried to construct opposing points of view in my head – and at the end I didn't give him a tip.

Now, I'm not the kind of person to leave bad reviews on TripAdvisor, but what if there's a cabal of European tour guides to which I've now been reported for being "sullen" and "miserly"? It's a far-fetched notion, but in some tech-powered industries that's exactly what's happening.

A recent piece in The New York Times discussed Uber ratings: not by those who've used the taxi service, but by those who provide it. Yes, just as we're prompted to rate our drivers post-journey, they're prompted to rate us, too, and if we get ourselves a bad reputation the service can be withheld. "For about three weeks," complained one passenger who'd fallen foul of the system, "Uber was basically unusable."

We're already aware that there are repercussions when we fall short of acceptable consumer behaviour; pizza delivery companies have blacklists, and any attempt to buy something with 0 per cent finance will be judged against that all-knowing credit score. But this is slightly different; it creates a strange atmosphere where we're not quite sure if our behaviour is being assessed, graded and shared.

Behaving in a high-handed way over dinner can secure you a quick exit from some restaurants, as certain food critics have found to their cost. But last year there was a murmur of concern in Australia as some establishment began using a shared booking system which had space for snippets of customer information. It was presumably designed to allow the maître d' to offer those little personal touches that might be appreciated by the diner, but it could just as easily be used to downgrade your reservation or even have it withdrawn. It demonstrated perfectly how big data can compromise our semi-anonymity in the most unexpected of ways.

Perhaps we had this coming, though. After all, we regularly vent online about businesses in a way that's often driven by bad moods or boredom. It's not long since the owners of a Blackpool hotel imposed a £100 fine on a couple who described the premises as a "stinking hovel" on TripAdvisor, and perhaps it's payback time. Maybe we'll end up being publicly shamed, too, as hoteliers turn away guests deemed likely to slip into angry keyboard-warrior mode.

And, as ratings take on that fractious quality and become a battle between business and consumer, they quickly become meaningless. Back in 2008, eBay withdrew the ability for vendors to rate buyers, after buyers either became too afraid to rate vendors badly for fear of the consequences or found themselves in a tit-for-tat war that left reputations unfairly damaged.

Yes, ratings can serve a purpose – neither businesses or consumers enjoy unpleasant surprises – but we're not used to being judged, and low-level paranoia awaits as we ponder the consequences of our actions. (Even if those actions are as benign as "not being very jolly on a trip around Belfast", or "not tipping the tour guide".)


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