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Can Zagat survive the rise of electronic communication?

The fine folks at Zagat sent me an early copy of their latest little red book. It's friendlier than Mao's effort, but it's beginning to feel similarly dated. The problem is that the book sounds like it's making fun of me.

The rise of the Internet -- not to mention of snark -- has meant that people spend a lot of time being sarcastic in print. One of the ways they signal their sarcasm is to put quotation marks around words that aren't direct quotes. For instance: Glenn Beck had a "thought" about American politics.

Zagat, famously, is made up almost entirely of quotes. That means that a lot of words that don't seem to be direct quotations actually are. But without a line identifying the speaker, or any good reason for the words to be confined between quotation marks, they just come off as sardonic. For instance, a review of Johnny's Half Shell reads:

A 2006 move to "the Hill" meant "more tables" for "the power crowd" at this New American seafooder set in spacious "upscale" digs with polished wood floors, white tile accents, and "lovely" outdoor seating eyeing the Capitol.

Zagat isn't making a joke about Johnny's moving to the Hill: the new address is 400 N. Capitol St. Nor are they implying something by saying there are "more tables" or noting the "lovely" seating. But it sure reads like they are. Indeed, the whole book sounds like it was written by this guy:

Maybe it's time to drop the quotations?

By Ezra Klein  |  November 9, 2009; 5:40 PM ET
Categories:  Food  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Jon Stewart does Glenn Beck
Next: The point of a congressional majority is to use it, not to keep it


City Pape tackled Zagat earlier this year. The verdict isn't so hot:

Posted by: ns269 | November 9, 2009 6:45 PM | Report abuse

I was hoping the video would be this classic Kids in the Hall sketch:

But I guess you can't win them all!

Posted by: HerooftheBeach | November 9, 2009 9:28 PM | Report abuse

Zagat brings up a whole discussion of the worth of user reviews. We recently saw the DC metro flooded with Starbucks ads because Zagat voted it the best coffee place. But this suffers from a few problems:

1) Lack of coverage: how can a user-reviewed guide account for smaller places that most users haven't tried? If there's a small coffee house that only a few users have rated, but all of them prefer it to Starbucks, do we give it better ratings out of those who've been there? Or do we give it worse ratings for having fewer mentions? What if the people who went there were a select group who likes that kind of thing, but it doesn't appeal to anyone else? Professional guides that send the same people to all sampled establishments wouldn't have this problem.

2) Consistency of ratings. This is a problem with trip advisor, too. People have different standards and give the same service different marks. Professional guides, such as the Guide Michelin, try to define what specific service elements merit what mark. Furthermore, many users rate relative to some self-defined category. Thus, you can find a budget hotel with higher marks than a four star hotel, though the four star hotel has better service.

Posted by: GrandArch | November 10, 2009 12:09 PM | Report abuse

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