The Illusion of Democracy in Online Consumer Restaurant Reviews

The Illusion of Democracy in Online Consumer Restaurant Reviews

Morag Kobez
Copyright: © 2016 |Pages: 12
DOI: 10.4018/IJEP.2016010104
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Food has long served as a form of cultural capital, and historically it was an elite few food critics who held the power to ascribe status to dining experiences. The rise of social and digital media arguably allows anybody to adopt the role of critic. Lowered barriers associated with digital technologies, coupled with the contemporary ‘foodatainment' boom have opened the floodgates for amateurs to weigh into the critical culinary discourse. The tendency for contemporary high-status dining experiences to include casual, rustic and simple foods suggests that the age of food snobbery is in the past. However, this notion of ‘omnivorousness' can be viewed as an alternative means of establishing rules surrounding high-status foods. Johnston and Baumann's US research reveals two frames used in food writing to valorise foods in an omnivorous age: authenticity and exoticism. In this project, Johnston and Baumann's methodology is developed and applied to Australian professional and amateur reviews. Results show that Australian professional reviews frequently employ frames of distinction whereas amateur reviews do not; it concludes that the contribution by amateurs to the critical culinary discourse is limited.
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The culture of food and dining have for centuries been inextricably linked to social status (Elias, Norbert & Jephcott, 1978; Goody, 1982; Mennell, 1996; & Korsmeyer 2005). Bourdieu’s (1984) theory of distinction identifies food as a form of cultural capital, and taste as central in the cultural reproduction and legitimation of power. Although the traditional dichotomy between high and low culture has largely receded in the realm of contemporary dining, cultural boundaries are very much still in existence. This paper explores the consecration of taste in Australian restaurant reviews. It examines both professional and amateur reviews to understand how dining experiences are legitimated as high-status cultural signals.

As recently as a decade ago, the power to construct cultural and culinary capital via restaurant reviews was the purview of a virtual handful of professional food critics and journalists – or judges of taste (Shrum, 1996). Luders (2008, pp. 693-694) observes that the evolution of less expensive media production tools, personal computers and the internet allow almost anyone to produce media and find an audience. The rise of social and digital media at the beginning of the twenty-first century heralded momentous changes to the food media landscape; effectively allowing anybody with an internet connection to opine on restaurant experiences to a potentially vast online audience (Goodsir, Neill, Williamson, & Brown, 2014). Amateur, or consumer-generated restaurant reviews are a significant feature of a contemporary foodscape characterised by widespread consumer participation.

The internet is awash with food-related sites populated solely by user-generated content, ratings and social media platforms describing a diverse range of dining experiences. The relatively standardised device known as the ‘online consumer review’ (OCR) is a significant development for interaction and widespread participation in the culinary discourse. Mellet, Beauvisage, Beuscart, & Trespeuch, 2014, 6) describe this as part of a broader movement towards ‘empowerment’ and ‘democratisation’ associated with the internet.

The proliferation of these reviews arguably threatens to disrupt the traditional cultural hierarchy, eroding the authority of the professional restaurant critic as arbiter of taste. Greater participation by amateurs in the culinary discourse has led to assertions in the academy of the ‘democratisation of criticism’ allowing anyone to become ‘an influential reviewer’ (Watson, Morgan, & Hemmington, 2008, p. 299). This paper argues that greater participation in the culinary discourse via OCRs does not displace the traditional cultural hierarchy in restaurant reviews. The following research from Australia demonstrates that an elite few continue to bestow legitimacy and produce new status distinctions within this realm.

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