A quick plug on a related issue: I'm speaking at the Melbourne Writers Festival this year, as part of the New News conference. The panel, called Everyone's a Critic, will be discussing criticism and the effect the online world of blogs, social media and crowdsourcing is having on professional criticism. As well as me the panel will feature Ed Charles, Alison Croggon, The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones, freelance travel writer Tom Neal Tacker and Herald-Sun restaurant critic Stephen Downes. The event is on Friday 24th August at 1pm at Fed Square and it's FREE but you need to make a booking (here). Hope to see some of you there!
One of the first food blog posts I clearly remember reading (a year before I started Melbourne Gastronome) was Ed Charles' September 2006 post about Lau's Family Kitchen, written ten minutes after he got home from the opening night. As a restaurant enthusiast largely unaware of the nascent food blogging scene at the time, I remember feeling really excited by the fact that I could already see photos and read descriptions of a restaurant I'd been anticipating for months, knowing that it'd most likely be some weeks (or possibly months) before I'd see a review in the newspaper. This excitement about what blogs could offer readers was a key inspiration for starting my own blog.
A desire to be seen as a pioneer with a finger on the pulse of what's new and shiny, coupled with the easy immediacy offered by the internet, means that the temptation to be the first to write online about a new venue (and to benefit from the resulting SEO perks) can be great. I'm no angel: I've been guilty of it myself a few times, when it's a place I've been particularly excited about (see, eg, my first glimpse of San Telmo post).
But the race to be first seems to be reaching new, hilarious heights in Melbourne. Take the case study of Nama Nama (the new Japanese cafe from Izakaya Den owners Simon Denton, Miyuki Nakahara and Takashi Omi): it opened its doors for lunch on Thursday 21 June. The Three Thousand review went up by about 2:30pm that same day, the Milk Bar review went up at about 9:30am on Friday, and the Broadsheet review went up around Friday lunchtime - all three within 24 hours of the venue trading. Nina Rousseau's review was published in Epicure this week, 26 days after it opened.
Or take the example of Seddon cafe Common Galaxia, which reportedly had reviewers from two websites show up at the door at 7am on opening day. Or the reviewer at another venue's recent opening day, asking only half-jokingly whether "any of those [rival website] bastards" had been spotted yet!
Some publications, particularly the old-school ones, have policies of waiting some weeks after a venue has opened before visiting to review it, even if it means getting gazumped by others: Zoe Curtis from the Herald-Sun confirmed to me that their policy is not to visit in the first month. And as Stickifingers pointed out when we were discussing this issue on Twitter, many pieces being referred to as "reviews" are more properly characterised as mere opening announcements, with fleshier stories coming later (I'd say though that all too often there *aren't* fleshier stories - after the initial flurry of fawning publicity when a place opens, most tend to drop off the radar).
The industry argument that it's unfair to rush to judge a place that's brand new and still working through its teething problems is countered by the view that if that you're open to customers and charging full prices, you're open to reviews. And in any event, reviewers tend to be overwhelmingly compliant and uncritical, only too happy to feel part of (and feed) the hype.
But c'mon, isn't this competitiveness getting just a tad ridiculous? In a recent interview, I pretentiously characterised the internet as providing a welcome democratisation of the public discourse about food in our city. The ability to widely broadcast opinion is no longer confined to a precious few, and many of the newcomers feel they don't need to play by the old conventions. But in terms of this race to be first, maybe a bit more common sense should prevail, hmmm?