The Web Hostess: What you're missing (or not) on the internet

Sep 12, 2012

A weekly chat about the best ways to kill time online. Our Web Hostess, Monica Hesse, sifts the Internet so you don't have to, searching for meaning, manners and the next great meme.

Afternoon, everyone, and thanks for stopping by.  This week, in the world of the Internet, we might as well start with the Yelp reviews of Big Apple pizza in Florida. This is the pizzeria where, as you are by now well aware, the owner swooped Barack Obama into a giant Kodak-moment bear hug. Some conservatives -- who appear to have never eaten at the restaurant -- flocked to Yelp to downgrade the eatery's rating, purely based on their distaste of the PDA. Some liberals -- who additionally appear to have never eaten at the restaurant -- flocke to Yelp to protest the downgrade.


Keeping personal politics aside, I'm curious to know what you think of Yelp -- or any other ratings site -- being used for an agenda like this. If you find it appropriate, tell me why. If you find it inappropriate, tell me why and then tell me if there are other circumstances in which you might find it appropriate. (I'm being vague because I have a few examples in mind, but I'd rather see where everyone else is at on their own).

We'll get started at 2; I may post a few things before then -- and feel free to suggest other topics.


I am taking my summer vacation very in next week. I need to spend some time over the weekend putting some reading material on my nook. I'm going to try to figure out how to do this through the Montgomery County Library, but since they are shared state-wide, the selection can be limited. Any recommendations from the group for sites to browse? Classic fiction is good, but I can read PDFs too, so if anyone can think of some really juicy government or think tank reports, I could look at those too. One limit, I have a Nook Touch, so things that need to be in color aren't going to work. (Good grief. I just reread that. I've totally gone DC, haven't I? I used to be a New Yorker. Sigh.)

It's an oldie, but I always start with UPenn's online books catalogue. Mostly classics, but a wide range of other stuff, too. Several sites have also published guides for how to find free books online. Check out this one by CNET -- a reliable review site. It's a year old now, but most of the information still looks up to snuff. Chatters? Other suggestions?

I find it kind of ironic that droves of conservatives have protested Big Apple Pizza's activities, while they also hurled criticism at liberals doing the exact same thing to the owner of Chik-Fil-A. In other words, I think that if you think going on Yelp to protest the pizza man's political views is wrong, you should probably not be one of the folks who protested the views of the chicken man. What's good for the goose is good for the gander, and all that, yes?

Or, you know, what's good for the beef is good for the poultry.

While I'm all for individuals choosing to support or not support establishments based upon the politics of their owners, I find it absurd to review places *you haven't even been* for political reasons. On the other side of the ideological aisle, there is a BBQ place down in some small town west of Houston that has a bunch of negative Yelp reviews based upon a political view held by the owner and that angered me, too. I just want to know where to get delicious food, dammit.

Is that the line you draw? You have to have set food in the establishment? What if a review said, "I go here all the time, and the owner never stops talking about how much he loves Obama. It's really distracting, because I just want to eat my pizza in peace, so I'm knocking him down a couple stars." Would that be a legitimate review, since it gets at your experience in the restaurant?

Are you following the Morgan Ingram blog? This whole story is heartbreaking AND terrifying. Is it for real?? The day by day retelling of last year's events is compelling, but I can't stand waiting for the story to unfold. I'm having nightmares, but just can stop checking back for updates. What is this phenomenon, and will I go mad before it's finished?

I had never heard of it until this very post, and now I can't wait to go read it and do a little research. At first glance, it looks like it could go either way. It could certainly be a real story. It could also be a novel written in blog form, either meant to experiment with form, or to deceive the audience. It wouldn't be the first time. Any other Morgan fans out there?

I don't think downgrading a Yelp review is appropriate--I think that venue should be pretty much just about quality of the food, service, etc. However, I can't totally denounce it. I don't see having that information and making decisions based on it particularly different than not going to Chick-Fil-A because of the owner's stance on homosexuality, or seeing a sign in a business window advocating certain beliefs and deciding not to buy something there. So...mixed feelings.

Another Chick-Fil-A comparison. Although this one does seem a little more ludicrous, since it's based primarily on a photograph and not on documented beliefs. I've been in the same air space as a few presidents. It's kind of awesome, no matter what your politics are. Like the graduate who chest bumped George W. Bush. You get in the same room as a president, and you just get kind of excited.

I hadn't actually heard that story, but sadly, it doesn't surprise me. I don't trust most of those sites, anyway, since I discovered how frequently they are abused. For example, there was one local restaurant that was notorious for poor service and mediocre food, and it suddenly shot up in the ratings. Turns out the owners were writing reviews under pseudonyms. Comparing my experiences at a variety of restaurants to what Yelp says, I think this must be a common practice, along with trashing your competitors. You're better off asking your friends.

It's true. Unless a place is popular enough to have hundreds of ratings, it's easy enough for both owners and haters to jack the ratings.

Take a look around Barnes & Noble's site. They have a free book every Friday, and loads of cheap titles. (I actually just bought the 9/11 Commission Report for $0.99 for my Nook Touch.)

Thanks. That was one of CNet's top suggestions, by the way -- do a search by price, and set the price to $0.00. 

One note: Beware of some of the free self-published novels. There is a reason that no publisher picked most of them up. Many of them aren't even a bargain at "Free."

And yet, here's what I find fascinating. I've bought many a $1.99 book because it received 4-5 stars, and three chapters in, I want to apologize to my eyeballs for subjecting them to the horridness. Why are these books so highly ranked? Is it just a bunch of people who think, "Eh, it was crap, but it was such cheap crap, I'll give it the benefit of the doubt?"

My cousin's birthday was Tuesday and Facebook sent a reminder to my email address. At first I thought there was a mistake because my cousin's last name was not one I recognized. Nope, it was my cousin alright. She got married at the end of July and failed to tell anyone except Facebook. My question is, why bother Facebooking it and not telling your parents and other family members firsthand? She is friends with her parents so she had to know they'd see it.

Wait. You are saying that she eloped two months ago and told not a soul? Are you sure her parents didn't know? Wow.

Wikipedia has identified the 5-year-old kid doing the pop-locking dance moves in the beginning of the video as Min-woo Huang (or Hwang), and says Psy discovered him on an episode of "Korea's Got Talent." I'd say they do...

This is extremely important information. I feel like this kid is going to end up in an American movie soon, and my prediction is that it will be in an installment of The Hangover series. Other bets?

Ugh, please please please Internet, keep politics OUT of Yelp reviews. I use Yelp to know if a restaurant/store/etc is good and worth my time to patronize, not to find out about the manager's/owner's/franchisee's political leanings. I'd rather the complaint be a valid one, i.e., "this does not taste like NY pizza" than "ohemgee democrats are the worst". (Disclaimer: I have not read the reviews so I have no idea if the pizza is "real" or not.) The only time I think it would be appropriate is if the complaint referenced some sort of politically based discrimination (that seemed like it was real and not a fabricated story).

Politically based discrimination. Hmm. Were you more sympathetic to Chick-fil-A's protesters?

For the late vacationer, I have found that ProPublica and Long Form have many articles and things that are helpful if one is trying to kill time (certainly almost never at work though)!


If there is an open forum for where anyone can comment on or rate something - a restaurant, a blog, or an opinion piece - anyone will comment and rate it. I always figure the best reviews come from the owners and the worst reviews come from the competition anyway.

It would be worth it, probably, to have a discussion on how to judge online reviews. I never trust the ones that speak in platitudes and generalities, i.e. "This is my favorite restaurant, everything is the best thing I have ever tried and the owners are the best people I have ever met."

Real people giving real reviews don't speak in generalities. They relate anecdotes and specific experiences. They mention names, and if they don't know names, they say, "the surly blond receptionist" or "the bubbly busboy," etc.

Check out Open Culture and, specifically, their free ebooks. This is a rabbit hole of a site that will suck you in with lectures, language courses, and ebooks. Some of the books are formatted for Kindle but I use Calibre ( to reformat them for my own nook).


One article I read on the photo (on Gawker maybe?) did say that the owner is a republican, but plans on voting for Obama. I don't know whether that is actually true, but it is at least floating out there.

I read that as well but hadn't the time to verify it.

Yes -- I think behaviors of a proprietor are such that they can reasonably become part of the review. I have an aversion to frequenting a restaurant where the owner's politics infringe upon my dining experience, so knowing that would be beneficial. I still wouldn't care if the pizza was amazeballs, though. I really love pizza.

That's why God invented delivery. All the pizza, none of the politics.

America may not embrace soccer, but we sure do embrace the soccer hooliganism mentality when it comes to our political parties. I think political discourse in America is broken and **** like this is exactly why. I'd take my ball and go home, except this is my home and I want the rest of them (political junkies on both sides) to leave instead.

"Take my ball and go home." I just love this extended metaphor. Well done.

I think your sage advice re: Yelp can apply here. Just substitute author and owner. "Unless a place is popular enough to have hundreds of ratings, it's easy enough for both owners and haters to jack the ratings."

Yes, but these books -have hundreds of ratings.- I don't buy something that has just 12 or 15.

I tend to take all reviews with a mighty dose of salt. Have you ever seen reviews of movies or products that haven't even come out yet, but people are already reviewing it with comments like: "hated the first one" or "can't wait to see this". I expect nothing less from Yelpers.

For shame, Yelpers. It's part of our entire culture's desire to Get There First. Reviewing movies based on trailers, reviewing books based on chapters. I regularly get nasty reader emails saying, "I didn't read past the first paragraph because I was so mad you didn't mention X." And then X, of course, is what they would have read in the second paragraph.

Saw three things today that made me laugh, cry and think (not necessarily in that order): * The legitimate rape birth control ad parody  * Happy Pete & a Customer Service Message  * Cats With Thumbs  Thank you, YouTube, greatest time waster ever.

I can't guarantee these are all SFW, but for the record, I truly believe that Cats With Thumbs depicts exactly what would happen if housecats evolves a little more. Cats would eat us if they could. Don't ever think differently.

Sorry...should have clarified. I meant discrimation to patrons of the restaurant or store (refusing service, significantly reduced service, etc). As long as a store doesn't discriminate against a group at their establishment, I will patronize it if the product is good, regardless if I "agree" with the owner's political leanings.

Thanks for the clarification.

Re: you were wondering why some books were so highly ranked... Salon recently did a piece on the Amazon Breast Curve, which examines patterns in the star ratings. Relating this to your question about Yelp, I really have grown to hate that site because people tend to review a restaurant when they've had a bad experience. Not so much if they had a good/decent experience. So it's skewed right off the bat. Also, half of the bad reviews are based on something not related to the restaurant at all, e.g., the tablecloths are blue and that is my least favorite color or the parking lot was too crowded that night.

Thanks, the Salon piece sounds fascinating. Your other point gets at one of the biggest problems with user reviews -- often, we have no way of knowing what personal background the user is bringing into an experience. I was looking at hotels recently for an upcoming vacation, and lots of the users kept complaining that the hotel rooms were small. But small compared to what? By whose standards? If they were from the Midwest, were real estate is cheap and spacious, they might identify something as "small" that I would call palatial.

This is what I love about's "sample a chapter" feature. You can dip your eyelashes into the water without scarring your eyeballs.

I just...I always hope it's going to get better.

A lot about this online. Apparently it was ruled a suicide, but the parents are fighting that determination. Fascinating.

Ahhh! Don't tell me anymore! I need to read this post haste!

Sadly, it starts with hating a pizza joint you've never been in because you are told that they don't have the same politics you have, then it moves to actively boycotting a place because someone told you that they kill puppies, finally ending up with you mobbing an embassy because you're told that someone from that nation made a movie that disses your religion. It's always because of what you've been told, rather than what you've experienced yourself - you're removed from the people involved by the buffer of "that person said"...

This is so poignant, and so tragic. For those of you who haven't been following the horrible U.S. consulate attack in Libya, it's been linked to a Muslim-denouncing film made by a U.S. citizen.

Not only because of the pizza hug fiasco, but granting advertisers on their site the ability to highlight positive "reviews". On the other hand, without Yelp, we wouldn't have the reviews of Abortionplex.

And without reviews on Amazon, we wouldn't know about the wonder of BIC for Her.

On using Yelp for its intended use: I will check it out for a restaurant I've not yet visited, to see if there is a general consensus on whether the place is quality or not. I have looked up some of my favorite eateries as well, and I guess my taste is only worth roughly 3.75 stars. :) Now, as for the right-wing dolts who have trashed Big Apple Pizza because the owner gave the President a big bipartisan (the owner is a Republican who supported Obama in '08 and is obviously doing so again in '12) bearhug, well, that seems to me to warrant not considering those opinions when determining whether to patronize the joint. (Frankly, if I'm ever down in that area, I would buy a pie from this fellow.)

This whole ordeal has just made me really crave pizza. Not that gross NY-style stuff, though.

by an clothing store. Can you or the "Hessens" recommend a good website so I can alert other consumers? Also, my bank has the worse Customer Service where online is the best place to warn would be customers. Didnt want to provide names of either in case this was verboten, but will gladly supply both. THANKS.

...Well, you could always start with posting a review to Yelp...

I've spent tons of time thinking about reviews and would love to have a whole chat devoted to the topic. The thing I always struggle with is ratings creep (which I know is something Tom Sietsema struggles with -- on a much bigger stage, of course). For instance, the local Mexican joint down the street is some place I love going. Good food, nice staff, pretty cheap. It's somewhere I go regularly. But what should the star rating be? I love it, but it isn't really a 5-star place when you compare it to Rasika or Restaurant Eve or the Jose Andres restaurants. But if I put it as a 3, which it probably is, that's a low rating and people wouldn't want to go. So in the end I just never review anywhere.

It all depends on context, right? Even Tom Sietsema allows that McDonalds fries can't be beaten. Sure, if you want steak frites or home fries you might go somewhere else -- but if you want a slender America fry, McDonalds are the best. Same with movies. I thought The Five Year Engagement was a fantastic movie. Would I compare it to Schindler's List? No -- but in the specific genre of romantic comedies, it beats the pants off of lots of other movies. Your local Mexican joint should deserve a five star rating in the category of "local Mexican hole in the wall."

Can 1,000 people be wrong? Well sure, if their taste and standards aren't the same as yours. I tend to go for the free or discounted books that are being offered by established writers as an incentive to try a new author/series. Or cross-check with GoodReads, which I find to be a more reliable indicator many times.


I'm an Obama supporter, but I would not have a problem patronizing a restaurant where the owner feels an overwhelming urge to give Romney a hug (like that would ever happen anyway.) I live in the South and I have to assume most local business owners are Republican. So what? I think the Chick-fil-A situation is somewhat different. The national scale of the company matters. And by virtue of his wealth and prominence, the owner of Chick-fil-A invites both TV interviews and a greater level of scrutiny..


Wondering if you had any reaction to the Buzzfeed article declaring that YA fiction was the new chick lit? I'm a guy who has read a fair amount of YA recently--yeah for John Green, Bacigalupi, Lois Lowry, HP and Hunger Games, but I'm not sure the comparison works. YA is much broader and potentially darker than chick lit

I haven't read this article. I will, but going into it, I'll say that I find the premise to be appallingly stupid and ridiculous, and comparing apples to staplers. So I'm a wee bit biased from the outset.

Do a search on your Nook by entering "0.00" in the search bar. Just checked and today, there are 1,841,156 free selections. Surely, you can find *something* in that group! I have many free selections on my Nook, most downloaded from there. You can read the overviews & check out reviews on Goodreads first, then decide if you want to continue with the download.

Again, I think this was covered in the CNET link I sent, but worth another mention.

We're going to end a bit early today, guys. My computer keeps kicking me off the chat platform and behaving otherwise wonkily. I don't think it's worth another reboot, so I'll bid farewell and see you all next week.

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Monica Hesse
Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.

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