With a little help
of social media

Erica twigt

Starting a restaurant in one year and growing into the most popular restaurant in London within a few months sounds almost too good to be true. In no time, you're leading the pack on Tripadvisor, and leaving well-known names trailing in your wake. You might well wonder how it's possible. Well, given the title of this column you probably have a vague suspicion in which direction you should look for the answer. And indeed, social media is the right answer, only there is a twist. This restaurant did not exist!

Oobah Butler, a freelance writer, used to write fake reviews for restaurants on Tripadvisor, commissioned by a PR agency. He knew exactly how to make these reviews look real. And in spite of the fact that he believed that many of the reviews were real, this gave him a sense of living in a 'climate of misinformation'. So he set himself the challenge of starting a fake restaurant and becoming number one on Tripadvisor in London. And thus 'The Shed at Dulwich' was born.

He created a website for the restaurant with a trendy menu concept based on moods. It presented dishes with names like 'Lust', 'Contemplation' or 'Happy', and some photos of beautifully presented dishes to arouse the curiosity of future customers. And since customers could not really visit the restaurant, of course, it became an appointment-only restaurant. When potential customers called, they were told that the restaurant was fully booked for the next six weeks. Fake reviews written by friends made sure that The Shed was included in the Tripadvisor list. And then everything went very quickly. The rumours about a hip restaurant where you eat in the garden and where "you really should have been there" were boosted by reviews such as: "Spent a weekend in London and heard through the grapevine that this place is a must-visit. After a few mildly frustrating phone calls, I was in.”

By November 2017, the restaurant had been number one on Tripadvisor for two weeks and Butler decided on a grand finale. He arranged some scruffy tables and chairs in his shabby back garden, and opened his restaurant for one evening. Of course, he also invited some friends who pretended to be normal guests, to create a bit of atmosphere. To his amazement, the real guests were pretty enthusiastic about the instant food and the whole experience. Hadn't they seen that the reviews and the reality did not match? Is it more important to be part of the hype?

And actually the last question is one of the key points that make this example interesting. It's not the fact that the Tripadvisor rankings can be manipulated. Tripadvisor also realizes that, given that they use programs to screen reviews for 'authenticity'. Neither does the example show that reviews in general are not to be trusted. After all, the benefits of transparency that come with reviews many times outweigh the disadvantages of their manipulability. As long as you remain critical, of course.

No, what this example shows is that - due to the speed of the Internet - every kind of information (existing or non-existent, true or false) can be made 'big'. So 'big' that people would like to believe it.

N.B. Curious about the story of The Shed at Dulwich? Check out the video here!