With economies crumbling, politicians posturing, nations in upheaval, and “Wizards of Waverly Place” canceled, one can’t be blamed for thinking humanity has lost its bearings, and all is lost. However, I believe that nothing could be further from the truth.

After decades of conspicuous consumption, corporate and personal greed, and upended priorities, the double-dip depression (that’s what I’ve been calling it, and I’m sticking by it) is forcing many of us to review our lifestyles, and reconsider what is really important. Statistics suggest that the undeniable financial stresses of late are not increasing divorce rates, but rather reversing the trend (divorce rates are down year-on-year since 2008YE), and families are growing closer, with adults moving back in with parents, resulting in shared costs and shared burdens. The high cost of oil (regardless of recent gimmicky dips) is accelerating the drive toward alternative fuel vehicles (here’s hoping that we blast through the not-so-green hybrid and electric cars currently on offer, and really get it right with 2014 models). Citizens of cities around the world are increasingly clamoring for alternative modes of urban transportation (bicycle, pedestrian, public transport), leading to the exciting redesign of urban landscapes – incorporating  complete streets, more green spaces, pedestrian safety, increased access to local retail businesses, air quality improvements, mitigation of obesity rates, and reduction of urban heat island effects.  The process is slow, sometimes painfully so, but it is at least progressive, and I believe accelerated by the pressures brought to bear by our collective and individual financial woes.

The struggles faced by our society are reinvigorating our awareness of the communities within which we live, work, and play. More to the point, they are humanizing an existence that seemed to be losing itself in an entropic vortex of “technology for the sake of it”, rampant consumerism, and material one-upmanship. Individuals are becoming more aware of the truth of our shared reality. Nobody is in this alone, and this noble cliché seems to be reawakening an almost instinctual urge to share what little we have with those around us. The amount of dollars being given to charity may be down, but the number of people making donations  is up. This drive is manifesting itself in some wonderfully strange ways, a few cherry-picked examples offered her below, as evidence:

Airbnb is trying, with varying degrees of success, to connect private homeowners with regular travelers, for mutual benefit. Have an extra room (or whole residence) sitting empty at any particular time of the year? Offer it up for rental, and airbnb will help find a tenant.  As soon as the service manages to work out how to minimize vandalism and theft, and refine the availability calendaring (hopeless at present), it’s going to be fantastic (then again, the moment it solidifies its value proposition, I’m confident one or more of the VC firms backing it will insist it “pivot” to some nonsensical alternative business model, in the hope that ROI might be accelerated).

Meanwhile, one wonders what the point of grassroots lodging is, if one doesn’t have a clue what to do in the city one is visiting. MyGuidie to the rescue! This service, still in alpha mode, is building a database of professional tour guides offering their professional services to travelers seeking to explore a destination properly. However, the real clincher about this site is the fact that it is ALSO registering volunteer locals willing to offer up a little guide time in return for a cold brew or friendly meal! Salacious potential aside, this is civic pride in action.

Don’t rely solely on your guide, however, when you consider that restaurants, museums, and many other places to see and be seen are actively pursuing ways to connect with their customers, fans, and clients. The obvious Foursquare and Facebook check-in mechanisms are but the proverbial tip of the iceberg, marking the spot in an ocean of opportunity. Underneath these well documented landmarks in communications and interconnectivity lie some very compelling niche programs worth checking out, such as – to give but one example among an increasing horde – the Connections program from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where staff are sharing their personal histories and perspectives on art, and overlaying these worldviews on the more specific  touchpoints offered in the museum’s collections.

While on the subject of taking people out to lunch, or visiting a place of interest, it’s intriguing to note that We&Co, a Foursquare outcrop app, is providing users the ability to leverage the increasingly ubiquitous “check-in” to recognize and thank the people who make a particular moment in our day a pleasant one, be it our waiter, retail clerk, dentist, or tour guide.

These are but a few of the apps, sites, and services cropping up (and growing fast) to accelerate this healthy compulsion many of us are experiencing: now that we have less money, perhaps we’ll focus a little less on building or buying more, and  instead take a little more time to show some interest in those things that truly make life worth living: the people and places that comprise our world. As my close personal friend, Henry David Thoreau, once said: What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?

Henry David Thoreau, in 1861.
Image via Wikipedia

As professional reviewers and taste-makers find themselves increasingly marginalized by the aggregate insights and observations of “the crowd”, one wonders whether the demise of printed news may actually be beaten to the punch by the obsolescence of the once-all-powerful critic.

It used to be that we relied on Patricia Wells or Brad A. Johnson to guide us from one fine dining experience to the other. Indeed, reading their restaurant reviews in the Herald Tribune or Angeleno (respectively) represented something of a tasty appetizer, prior to the main experience of visiting an emerging “hot spot” discovered by their renowned palates.

Today, we are far more likely to turn to the legion of self-anointed food critics that live on Yelp, and – by parsing their experiences – so determine our choice of venue.

Of course, this trend is not limited to food: IMDB, Metacritic, and rottentomatoes.com are but a few of the resources available to moviegoers seeking to crowdsource their entertainment choices; a slew of new apps and engines, such as Weddar (location-based, people-powered, social weather reporting) and Fflick (twitter-based movie recommendation engine, recently acquired by Google), to name but a couple, are rapidly making anyone with the inclination a “retail influencer”.

It seems that for every institution, industry, and brand, there’s an app or a site ready to offer up a plethora of user-generated reviews. Amazon’s main value proposition is arguably not so much its products or pricing, but rather the fact that every one of those products is accompanied by a rich diversity of opinions from past shoppers. Groupon and Foursquare give users the opportunity to share “tips” and other product insights, and what’s Facebook if not one big moshpit of “Like/Unlike”? From PCs to software downloads, cars to cancer treatment, the experienced insights of trained professionals or deeply experienced specialists are being usurped, in favor of the massed choir of “fellow shoppers” in whom we prefer to somewhat blindly place our faith – jaded by a glut of advertising, and suspicious of prognosticators that seem less perfectionist and more political…a classic case of “quantity trumps quality”, based on the assumption that a sufficiently large aggregate of diversified opinions and reviews will yield a more truthful mean insight than one or two “professional” perspectives.

During the early days of this trend, the notion that one could turn to our peers for honest pre-purchase evaluations was both compelling and valuable. Sites such as Epinions.com and eBay fostered communities of idealistic shoppers, keen to ensure that their fellow consumers benefited from their prior experiences with a brand or product. As with most movements, the early days were a refreshing and invigorating alternative to what had admittedly become a somewhat stuffy status quo of entrenched, predictable, and unimaginative thinking. However, with mass adoption comes an exponential raising of the volume. The signal-to-noise ratio has diminished so swiftly that  I believe the “great experiment” risks expiring, gorged on the fat of its gluttony. Opinion aggregating sites such as Yelp are working frantically to develop and perfect algorithms that will mitigate the mess, but code often confounds the issue (many Yelp users – consumers and businesses alike – are complaining that their bona-fide reviews are being filtered for no apparent reason, and Yelp representatives explain that they have no control over the automated process of removing reviews that its algorithm deems “suspicious”).

This leaves us at the proverbial crossroad: either engineers or programmers discover and develop a stronger mechanism for managing the overwhelming pool of reviews attaching themselves to every book, diaper, TV, ointment, and car available on the Web; or we begin to find ourselves gravitating toward, and eventually anointing a select few regular reviewers, and making them the professional critics of the 21st Century, hired by their readership/viewership, and empowered to guide us all once more, as we seek out – albeit a little more frugally than our parents may have done – the next great meal, deal, or wheel.

What is certain, IMHO, is that crowdsourced review pools are fast reaching their saturation point and, unless someone begins to refine and maximize the resource, it will be as appealing and nourishing as sitting in a pool-full of marshmallows: the idea was thrilling, and the initial experience inspiring, but eventually the reality proves somewhat mind-numbing, and perhaps even a little sickening.