Being Myself Online Tastes Better

When I walked into Square Burger for the second time, it wasn't hard to notice that the staff was treating me a little bit differently. The bartender remembered my name and the beer I had drunk on my last visit. They have a few dozen beers on tap, so that was something of an accomplishment on both counts. I sat at the counter and ordered lunch. The first time I had eaten a burger with bleu cheese and balsamic onions. This time I went for a cheeseburger with bacon. I stuck with the sweet potato fries, because they were awesome. I've been to Square Burger five times in the last year and a half, and I've never tried the regular fries. Those sweet potato fries are better than they deserve to be.[Image credit: Alex Bartok]

As I was paying my check, the manager approached me. He thanked me for coming in for lunch. The place was busy, the food was good, there was no need to thank individual customers, though I appreciated the sentiment. What he said next threw me for a loop.

"I read your review on Yelp. I hope you like some of the changes we've made. We adjusted the beef a little bit and changed the buns. We also changed the bleu cheese."

"Oh, yeah." I said. I had almost forgotten I had left a review. I don't review many places on Yelp, but if I go somewhere that is run by locals and new to the area, I'll add my two cents. "I thought it was good, but I would have liked a different cheese, like Maytag bleu cheese."

"That's exactly what we're using. Maytag."

So, let's take a step back. Put aside the fact that I'm enough of a food snob to know they were using the wrong type of bleu on their burgers. They recognized me. They called me by name. In fact, I'll bet when I walked in, they pulled up the Yelp review so they would know it. There weren't many reviews for Square Burger at the time, maybe four or five at most. Most had been pretty good. Mine was a good review, with some reservations.

I thought the beef tasted funky. Too much brisket in the mix, I proposed. The buns were too soft for a good burger. And then there was the bleu cheese. I didn't order the same burger again, but by the time I came back for my second visit, they had changed everything I suggested.

I don't think restaurants should change at the whim of every reviewer, especially not Yelp reviewers. I don't trust Yelp reviewers, which is why I post reviews there. I want to represent an intelligent opinion on a site that sorely needs them.

My real point is that I used my real name. I almost always use my real name. Sometimes I use the name Phlipper, which is a nickname I've had since elementary school, but which nobody really calls me. It's my Internet handle. There aren't many Phlippers around, so I usually snag that as my nickname. Not on Twitter. On Twitter somebody got to it first. So, instead, I use my full name.

TechCrunch recently started using Facebook for their commenting system. It's a great idea. Everybody who comments uses their Facebook identity, which is usually their real name. Of course, as I pointed out in my last column, not everybody on Facebook is who they seem. But it's a great start. I think it's time we eliminate anonymity on the Web. In fact, I think it's vital for the Web to survive.

I've been looking at apartments recently, and of course, like every good child of the digital age, I've been reading reviews of my prospective new homes on the Web. There is no great apartment reviews site that I've found, nothing thorough and detailed and reliable. But the worst part is that the ratings and comments are completely unreliable.

When you read an apartment review, here's what you normally find: twenty to thirty perfect reviews that mention no flaws in the complex, and ten or so that say this is the worst place they have ever lived, ever. Usually, those ten focus on the same obscure problems. Not enough covered parking spots, though garage spots and open spaces are easy to come by. The street is too crowded with kids on skateboards. Seriously, am I supposed to believe that only ten people hated this place, and all of them because the complex allowed kids to ride skateboards in the street?

I even saw one apartment complex where every negative review took a pot shot at a management office worker named Patsy. There were thirty glowing reviews, all fives out of five, and a half dozen that awarded zero stars, complaining that Patsy had ruined their experience in one way or another.

It's obvious to see what's happening there. The apartment complex, or the owners and management company, is posting their own positive reviews. I saw one complex that had fifty positive reviews, all five stars. Nobody thought this place should lose even a single star. At first I wanted to believe I had found the best apartment building ever, but then I wondered if it were possible that the managers would post fifty reviews, all of them unique, but all of them perfect? Yes, it's more than possible. They could have an office temp do that work before lunch, then post another fifty by close of business.

The negatives? Mostly they seemed to be so identical in tone and complaint that I imagine they all came from one or two disgruntled renters. All of the reviews, positive or negative, were posted anonymously. Not even a pseudonym, or a fake email address. Just anonymous.

It's time to remove that anonymity. There is no good community-oriented resource on the Web because anonymity hides the truth of who is posting and their affiliation. I know that we open ourselves up to privacy concerns when we reveal ourselves to total strangers, but I would rather read reviews from the few people who are brave and honest enough to use their real identities than those who can and do hide behind the anonymous label.

But let's get back to that burger. As a reviewer (of consumer electronics), it felt weird to be getting special treatment. I try to keep myself neutral and untainted by gifts and bribes as a reviewer. Then I realized, I don't review burgers. I just eat them. I want the best burger that Square Burger can serve. If I got special treatment, and a better burger, I'm not only fine with that, I'd prefer it. It makes me want to post more reviews on Yelp for every place I frequent.

Bottom line: if you live near McKinney, Texas, go to Square Burger on the town square. Get the lamb burger and a pint of Franconia Dunkel, a local brew. Skip the deep fried pickle spear. But whatever you do, make sure you get the sweet potato fries.