If, like most of the population in December, you were engulfed by the seasonal tsunami of tat and tinsel, then you are likely to have missed the story of what happened when the unforgettably named Oobah Butler decided to launch and promote his restaurant in 2017. Let me tell you.
Week after week, reports were posted on TripAdvisor from delighted patrons of ‘The Shed’, a new establishment located in the smart south London suburb of Dulwich (which is, coincidentally, very close to my own not-quite-so-smart borough of Bromley). Nobody had a bad word to say about the restaurant, praising its food and service in glowing terms. Mr Butler was, needless to say, delighted.
The restaurant’s own website was illustrated with photographs of mouth-watering meals and, so great was the on-line enthusiasm of its patrons, that ‘The Shed’ speedily reached the review site’s top rank. Indeed, the restaurant critic of The Guardian welcomed its arrival on the Capital’s gastronomic scene and praised it for recognising that, in his words, “food is all about mood”.
The only fly in this massive pot of oleaginous ointment was that ‘The Shed’ was a figment of Mr Butler’s imagination. As a restaurant, that is.
It exists as a shed. At the bottom of his garden. A large wooden shed with a flat roof and a glazed door. I assume it contains a fine selection of garden tools and all the stuff a chap needs to fit out the special space to which chaps retreat when they want to potter chisels and screwdrivers and hammers and pliers, and so forth. Power tools, perhaps.
But by no stretch of the imagination is it a restaurant. The rave reviews for ‘The Shed’ in Dulwich were written by him and his friends, who were in on the hoax. He convinced TripAdvisor that it was a real restaurant by registering a mobile phone number to its name. The lack of an address was explained away by the fact that the restaurant was ‘appointment only’.
Naturally, potential diners phoning the number were told ‘The Shed’ was fully booked. Which, knowing human nature, probably made them all the more eager to get a table. And no doubt they kept ringing in hope of success. Vain hope, of course.
Now, as someone who knows a bit about the finer points of hoaxing (but that is a story for another day), I take my hat off to Oobah Butler and his chums.
They have reminded us, in spades, that information encountered on the internet needs to be approached with caution. The more so when you have no way of knowing where ‘news’ and opinions come from.
From the moment, many years ago, that these sites appeared, with their ‘independent’ judgements of hotels and restaurants, etc., it was obvious that unscrupulous folk could possibly take advantage of them.
Glowing recommendations purporting to come from satisfied diners and guests were just as likely to have been written by the establishments’ owners or managers – who were equally adept at posting vitriolic assessments of their competitors.
And there were, also, genuine diners or guests who would threaten establishments with a bad review unless they got a discount on their meal or their room. Both these scenarios were widely acknowledged to exist, within the travel and hospitality industry.
In short, the whole concept was – and is – wide open to fraud.
When Mr Butler’s hoax was revealed, TripAdvisor had a slight hissy fit. “Generally, the only people who create fake restaurant listings are journalists in misguided attempts to test us,” a spokesman declared.
He went on to claim that ‘state-of-the-art technology’ was used to combat fraudsters trying to rig the ratings. I don’t know much about technology, but I have my doubts that any system, no matter what state-of-the-art it happens to be, can differentiate between a truth and a lie.
The most powerful computer known to mankind – the human brain – is incapable of doing so, as we all know from personal experience.
In carrying out his hoax, Mr Butler has provided us with a warning of how much ‘ake news’ is out there on the internet, pretending to be truth. Indeed, he clinched it for me by admitting that he knew how to work the ratings system because he once made a living writing fake restaurant reviews on TripAdvisor for £10 a pop.
I am, of course, biased, but this story also reinforces my belief in the superiority of Silver Travel Advisor.
To begin with, what you read here is written by people who put their names to their opinions, and are prepared to have them tested. People who, in the main, have a lifetime of experience which gives them the ability to make a considered judgement.
At the start of my career as a travel journalist I was told that the opinion people value most is that of someone who has been to the destination or the hotel they are thinking of using. Or who has sailed on the very ship they are tempted to select for their next cruise. And the advice is all the more valuable when it comes from someone they know.
“No matter how much you learn, or how well you write about it,” one old timer told me, “you’ll never be able to compete with a family member, a neighbour or a workmate. They’re believed because they are known and trusted.”
I was lucky in that television made me ‘known’ to millions of people who came to trust my judgement almost as much as that of their friends and neighbours. Believe me, the folk who contribute to the Silver Travel Advisor site are just as worthy of your trust.
But, before we leave the saga of the non-existent Dulwich restaurant, may I ask you to spare a kind thought for ‘The Shed’ in Palace Gardens Terrace, Notting Hill.
That ‘Shed’ is a real restaurant. Serving real meals to real diners. Courtesy of Google street view I have been to Palace Gardens Terrace and established its existence. I am sure the publicity surrounding the fake ‘Shed’ over in Dulwich must have had an effect on its Notting Hill namesake, but I hope it all turns out well.
For the real ‘Shed’ is, overwhelmingly, an excellent restaurant.
According, that is, to its online ratings.