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Yelp and the Wisdom of “The Lonely Crowd”

With the rise of the Internet, Riesman’s book—which is, at its root, a discussion of the emotional life of information—has become even more relevant now than it was in the nineteen-fifties. But it won’t be of much use if it continues to be read as a book about all the miserable conformists. (It has probably not helped that the publisher, Yale University Press, put a flock of jammed sheep on the book’s cover.) Critics like Lee Siegel continue to press a distorted Riesman into the service of any given day’s anti-Internet jeremiad. In this past weekend’s Styles section of the New York Times, Siegel uses “The Lonely Crowd” to analyze the putative “Yelpification” of contemporary life: according to Siegel, Riesman’s view was that “people went from being ‘inner-directed’ to ‘outer-directed,’ from heeding their own instincts and judgment to depending on the judgments and opinions of tastemakers and trendsetters.” The “conformist power of the crowd” and its delighted ability to write online reviews led Siegel down a sad path to a lackluster expensive dinner. Unhappy with his monkfish and the names of the desserts, Siegel writes that “gone are the days when ‘conformist’ was a slur on someone’s character. Now the idea is that if you are not following the crowd of five-star dispensers, you’re a tasteless, undiscriminating shlub.”

What Riesman actually suggested was that we think of social organization in terms of a series of “ideal types” along a spectrum of increasingly loose authority. On one end of the spectrum is a “tradition-directed” community, where we all understand that what we’re supposed to do is what we’re supposed to do because it’s just the thing that one does; authority is unequivocal, and there’s neither the room nor the desire for autonomous action. In the middle of the spectrum, as one moves toward a freer distribution of, and response to, authority, is “inner-direction.” The inner-directed character is concerned not with “what one does” but with “what people like us do.” Which is to say that she looks to her own internalizations of past authorities to get a sense for how to conduct her affairs. Contemporary society, Riesman thought, was best understood as chiefly “other-directed,” where the inculcated authority of the vertical (one’s lineage) gives way to the muddled authority of the horizontal (one’s peers). The inner-directed person orients herself by an internal “gyroscope,” while the other-directed person orients herself by “radar.”

It’s not that the inner-directed person consults some deep, subjective, romantically sui generis oracle. It’s that the inner-directed person consults the internalized voices of a mostly dead lineage, while her other-directed counterpart heeds the external voices of her living contemporaries. As Riesman put it, “the gyroscopic mechanism allows the inner-directed person to appear far more independent than he really is: he is no less a conformist to others than the other-directed person, but the voices to which he listens are more distant, of an older generation, their cues internalized in his childhood.” The inner-directed person is, simply, “somewhat less concerned than the other-directed person with continuously obtaining from contemporaries (or their stand-ins: the mass media) a flow of guidance, expectation, and approbation.” You can imagine how the Internet intensifies things.

Riesman drew no moral from the transition from a community of primarily inner-directed people to a community of the other-directed. Instead, he saw that each ideal type had different advantages and faced different problems. As Riesman understood it, the primary disciplining emotion under tradition direction is shame, the threat of ostracism and exile that enforces traditional action. Inner-directed people experience not shame but guilt, or the fear that one’s behavior won’t be commensurate with the imago within. And, finally, other-directed folks experience not guilt but a “contagious, highly diffuse” anxiety—the possibility that, now that authority itself is diffuse and ambiguous, we might be doing the wrong thing all the time.

Those who have wanted to use “The Lonely Crowd” as a cudgel have consistently elided the book’s careful emphasis on the positive aspects of other-direction: openness, lack of inhibition, interest in others, and ability to change. Still, the price of those virtues was a new form of anxiety—about what to do, whom to trust to answer that question, and why—and it’s this anxiety that Siegel connects to Yelp, though he easily could’ve made a broader case about authority and information on the Internet. Siegel is right to make the inference, if wayward in his conclusions. It makes sense to associate the anxiety of how to relate to livingly diffuse authorities with the Internet, which presents the greatest signal-to-noise-ratio problem in human history. Before the Internet, you felt O.K. taking whatever restaurant recommendation happened along from a few trusted sources; this led Siegel to his cherished local Thai place. But where Siegel sees a desperate desire on the part of Yelpers to fit in, one might more charitably suggest that what we’re witnessing is the natural efforts of well-meaning people not only to heed credible information but to contribute to it.

The problem with Yelp is not the role it plays, for Siegel, in the proliferation of monoculture; most people of my generation have learned to ignore Yelp entirely. It’s the fact that, after about a year of usefulness, Yelp very quickly became a terrible source of information. There are several reasons for this. The first is the nature of an algorithmic response to the world. As Jaron Lanier points out in “Who Owns the Future?,” the hubris behind each new algorithm is the idea that its predictive and evaluatory structure is game-proof; but the minute any given algorithm gains real currency, all the smart and devious people devote themselves to gaming it. On Yelp, the obvious case would be garnering positive reviews by any means necessary. A second problem with Yelp’s algorithmic ranking is in the very idea of using online reviews; as anybody with a book on Amazon knows, they tend to draw more contributions from people who feel very strongly about something, positively or negatively. This undermines the statistical relevance of their recommendations. (This phenomenon has been dramatized to hilarious effect in the series of YouTube videos that feature actors performing melodramatic readings of Yelp reviews.)

Yet, the biggest problem with Yelp is not that it’s a popularity contest. It’s not even that it’s an exploitable popularity contest. Those, Riesman himself would have conceded, are the costs of an other-directed person’s freedom to roam widely in pursuit of useful authority figures. Rather, it’s the fact that Yelp makes money by selling ads and prime placements to the very businesses it lists under ostensibly neutral third-party review. If Yelp really were a way to gain credible information about the best restaurants, Riesman would’ve been as delighted as Siegel was horrified: the accurate and honest “wisdom of crowds” would significantly lower the transaction costs of being an other-directed person, and would more easily allow for the autonomy of actual choice in one’s affiliations (with people, with restaurants). But Yelp’s valuations are always possibly in bad faith, even if its authority is dressed up as the distilled algorithmic wisdom of a crowd. For Riesman, that’s the worst of all possible worlds: a manipulated consumer certainty that only shores up the authority of an unchosen, hidden source. In that world, cold monkfish is the least of our problems.

Illustration by D. Krán.

Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s book, “A Sense of Direction,” is out in paperback today from Riverhead Books.


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Mystic Maggie

All of the Mystic Maggie Posts are RSS Reader Feeds from around the web. All copyright remains with the original publisher. No copyright is claimed or intended. Where supplied, links back to the original article are included.

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