Not too long ago I engaged in a discussion with a number of colleagues about the merits of the popular website TripAdvisor. The site is well-known for its user-created ratings and reviews of hotels and restaurants, but it’s also considered a reputable resource for organizing and choosing destinations to visit during a vacation. There are many public history sites–including the park I work for–that are listed on the website, and the crux of our conversation revolved around how much stock we should put into the TripAdvisor reviews about our own site. We all agreed that we should care about these reviews in the sense that many people consult them before visiting St. Louis, and that some prospective visitors would definitely be reading what users have to say about us. From there, however, I think our views went in different directions. One person, after reading a reviewer’s complaint that there “was nothing for kids to do” at our site, started walking around the visitor center wondering what signage needed to change in order to make our Junior Ranger kids program more prominent. I, on the other hand, thought that changing a site’s operating procedures based on one anonymous reviewer’s opinions (especially in the wake of hundreds of other anonymous opinions on the same website that don’t mention this particular issue) was a bit overkill.
I admit that I am sensitive to some of the TripAdvisor criticisms of our site, but it’s mostly because I resent what I consider to be petty, unfair opinions that don’t accurately reflect the hard work we do to make the site interesting and relevant. We have been knocked for doing “politically correct” history, which is essentially code for saying that we mention slavery as a central topic of disagreement in political discussions leading up to the outbreak of the American Civil War, and that we acknowledge the lives of the enslaved African Americans who once labored at the home we now preserve. We have been knocked for “dumbing down history,” which is an arrogant assertion given that we are tasked to work with people of all ages and expertise levels and to give them a concise history of Ulysses and Julia Grant, slavery, and antebellum politics in a ten-minute interpretive talk. We have been criticized for having “no furniture in the house,” as if the existence 19th century furniture is the most important element of a historic house tour (we actually have a few period pieces in the home, but we do not have any original Grant furniture because it was all destroyed in a storage fire at another home during Grant’s presidency. I suppose I can’t blame visitors too much for being disappointed at the lack of historic furniture given how much it’s emphasized at other sites). And of course we’d bend over backwards to make a kid leave the park with a smile on their face, contrary to what anyone says about us offering nothing for kids.
Trust is the issue here. Why do I listen to certain people telling me about a film or an exhibition? Because I know they know much more than me. I respect their experience, no matter how much marketing may seek to critic-proof some duff product. So yes, we are all critics now but some are more equal than others. A quick trip to TripAdvisor soon demonstrates that not everyone tells you the things you actually want to know. In this never-ending review of everything, credibility is still hard to fake.
Within the context of public history sites I’ve come to the conclusion that TripAdvisor is much more useful for visitors looking for destinations to occupy their time than for institutions looking to learn about visitor experiences or the meanings people ascribe to the sites they visit. The platform is too open-ended and the opinions are too wide-ranging and subjective for most sites to do anything with them. That goes for positive reviews as much as bad ones. Someone who gives a site five stars and says “I loved this site!” offers enough information for another TripAdvisor user to potentially include a visit to that site during their next trip, but it doesn’t really do anything to help the leadership of that site besides prompting a congratulatory pat on the back.
I do not mean to suggest that all opinions expressed on Tripadvisor can or should be roundly dismissed by public historians, but I would like to suggest that we proceed with caution when assessing the merits of any user’s opinions about our sites. One way to counterbalance TripAdvisor reviews would involve creating formal evaluations that address specific questions a site or institution is looking to have answered, such as how visitors are responding to a new exhibit, what visitors would tell their friends about a site they visited, or what motivates people to visit historical sites in the first place. The sort of evaluative work I envision, however, requires the assistance of trained professionals that would work either as independent consultants or as fully dedicated staff members at these particular sites. And at least in my part of the National Park Service world, I have not seen anything suggesting that such an effort will be undertaken anytime soon, unfortunately, but that’s a topic for another day.
Do you use TripAdvisor when planning your visit to a public history site? Have you ever written a review? What do you make of my concerns? I welcome your comments below.