What TripAdvisor Says About America


Bizarre, contentious, and extremely popular, Mount Rushmore National Memorial has been etched into the U.S. identity since it’s construction in 1877. According to the official site, it “[symbolizes] the ideals of freedom and democracy.” The National Park Service’s page for the memorial features this quote from Rushmore’s architect Gutzon Borglum:

The purpose of the memorial is to communicate the founding, expansion, preservation, and unification of the United States with colossal statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.

“Colossal” couldn’t be more accurate. With 20-foot high Presidential faces carved with dynamite, this American landmark in the desert of South Dakota is a landmark so ambitious that even in the desert it sticks out. But Mount Rushmore’s history is as equally difficult to ignore , raising uncomfortable questions about it’s preeminent place in our culture. Borglum, himself, served as a member of the Klu Klux Klan , and the Rushmore property (which at one time had been willed to the Sioux Nation) was taken back by the government in 1874 when gold was discovered there. In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the federal government in favor of the Lakota tribe, but the case remains unresolved.

This paper will analyze user’s reviews of Mount Rushmore on the social media site Tripadvisor to explore perceptions of the memorial as it relates to the United State’s national identity. With ten years of data, I will use visualization tools such as Voyant to analyze linguistic trends that rise to the surface, whether these trends change over time, and if certain words correlate to negative or positive reviews (only 219 of the 3,508 reviews were given an “average” or below rating). Some of the questions I hope to answer include: (1) Are visitor’s aware of the monument’s history, and if so, does it influence their rating? (2) What language correlates to negative and positive reviews? (3) Do linguistic trends change over the decade? (4)After analyzing these subsets, what can be concluded about how reviewers interpret their own national identity?

Those that came before
Using social media to analyze how the public defines and creates meaning has been an emerging field of scholarship that this study hopes to continue. In “My Tripadvisor: Mining Social Media for Visitor’s Perceptions of Museums vs. Attractions,” Elizabeth Mauer used Tripadvisor comments to analyze the expectations and perceptions of museum visitors in order to re-think how museums can better represent themselves. In “Trip Advisor Rates Einstein,” Trevor Owens shows that the creation of meaning through social media is recursive; a place to record reactions, while simultaneously providing a ‘frame’ that influences how new visitor’s interpret the statue. Bryan Routledge performs computational linguistics on social media to break open language trends and what they say about society. As an example, he and a team of researchers used Yelp reviews to show that expensive restaurants are most often described through metaphors of sex, while cheap restaurants were described through metaphors of drug abuse and addiction. These scholars have used an emerging corpus of data to make important statements about society and meaning-creation.


Methodology                                                                                           Unfortunately, Tripadvisor will not allow API access for academic research or data analysis, so I plan to sample 25-30% of the reviews for the purposes of this class. On the up side, Tripadvisor allows you to sort by date and reviewer ranking, so getting at the data from different angles will be relatively easy. Through the text-mining tool Ventura, you can search by specific words and also see overarching trends. I plan to use both methods on three different sample sets (negative reviews, positive reviews, and a span from 2004-2015), in order to answer my proposal questions.

It is my hope that this study benefits a cross-section of disciplines in the social sciences, contributes to emerging digital scholarship, and gives us insight into how we reconcile the sometimes contradictory narratives of a monument’s history and what it is supposed to represent.

6 Replies to “What TripAdvisor Says About America”

  1. I really like the idea of this project, and look forward to learning the results. Analyzing the perceptions of patriotism in terms of sculpture carved into the land almost certainly will discover interesting nuggets of jingoism and/or complicated views of history. (Would Teddy Roosevelt, who helped preserve so much of the land out west, actually approve of this?) And the “official site” you link to probably isn’t the most official and seems more commercial. The National Park Service site has a surprising dearth of history about the construction, but Wikipedia states that the monument was completed in 1941 after being started in 1927. Also, Borglum was chosen because he had just created the bas relief on Stone Mountain that glorifies Confederate leaders–which is also of course problematic. But how many people know about that, too? Once again, I look forward to seeing who uses Trip Advisor for critique and who uses to give patriotic praise of the Rushmore project.

  2. This is a great proposal. It’s both interesting subject matter and well written. It’s nice to see that you have done the legwork to find out about the status of the lack of an API. If you were going to do this as a project, you could likely find someone with some computing chops to help create a script to screen scrape (a Google search turned this up as a result, but I imagine there a lot of other examples http://stackoverflow.com/questions/17868585/screen-scraping-tripadvisor-with-post-request).

    With that said, given how few negative reviews there are, I imagine if you wanted to just get two equal samples of these you could well get all the lower than 3 star reviews and then randomly get an equal number of positive reviews. That’s just a thought off the top of my head.

    It’s interesting that there are so few negative reviews. I’m curious if that is a general thing about tripadvisor and monuments and memorials, or if because this particular one is such a pain to get to that you have to be really committed to liking it upfront to even make the trek.

    In any event, I think you’ve got an interesting set of data to look at that would be likely to generate some interesting results.

    Part of me thinks this sort of project could also potentially benefit from looking at some sites that commemorate different aspects of American history. For instance, something like Wounded Knee Massacre Monument which is also in South Dakota http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g54880-d144992-Reviews-Wounded_Knee_Massacre_Monument-Wounded_Knee_South_Dakota.html or Little Bighorn http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g60888-d145853-Reviews-Little_Bighorn_National_Monument-Crow_Agency_Montana.html

    That said, I’m sure there is plenty for you to work with just in the reviews of Mt. Rushmore. It really comes down to where you will find the bits that you can use to point out the contrast or points of divergence that would make for the paper you are most interested in writing.

    1. Thank you! I think you’re sampling suggestion is a practical strategy. Honestly, this paper could go in a lot of directions, so the results will inform the approach (as you’ve suggested)- and I think that’s kind of exciting!

  3. So, the thing I remember about visiting Mt. Rushmore was that the annual Harley Davidson convention takes place just up the road in Sturgis, SD and the park was swarming leather-clad bikers as far as the eye could see. It mightn’t be entirely relevant, but I think it’s an interesting note that this place that is such a bastion of the establishment – they blasted presidents into the rocks – was chosen for the famously non-conformist bikers’ annual meeting. It might be interesting to look into how it affects the park to have this convention in town annually or how it affects the people who go there unawares (like my family; though to be fair, the bikers were all really nice to us).

    1. Oh, that IS interesting. Especially with how much biker cultural uses American iconography…. eagles, american flags, etc….

  4. In my experience negative ratings tend to be more associated with negative visit experiences, like crowded exhibits and rude staff members. Do you have a method to control for poor visit experiences? I do love, however, that you are using social media as a source for visitor experience.

    Since that by now I assume the study is over, what did you find?

    (Thanks for citing my paper, by the way.)

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