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Where Every Opinion Matters

April 17, 2012

In 1995, the first online reviews appeared on an upstart website called Amazon.com. The move shocked critics, who thought it retail suicide. Within a few years, crowd-sourced reviews took power away from the media, the traditional cultural taste-makers, and transferred it to everyone else. Not even Jeff Bezos could have imagined the change that customer reviews would bring to the Internet marketplace. Suddenly, everyone really was a critic, their opinion just as valid and important as Roger Ebert’s or Michiko Kakutani’s.

The customer review has achieved such currency that by 2012, the average review on Yelp was worth $9.13. On the Internet, every opinion matters. And for those of you sick of the proliferation of angry, half-baked reviews, there is sadly no relief in sight. The widespread dissemination of opinions fuels the Internet, the blogosphere, web journalism, and every web retailer out there. If you had hoped this trend would go away, I have bad news for you: it won’t.

When Every Opinion Didn’t Matter

This could be you.

Before Amazon and the Internet changed everything, people relied on two critical sources of information to make informed decisions: professional critics and friends. People read reviews in their favorite newspapers and magazines from critics that they trusted and whose opinions they recognized and valued. They knew the tastes and biases of their favorite critics, appreciated the prose and candor of the critic’s writing, and then made informed decisions about what they wanted to read, buy, and see. Similarly, people relied on the opinions of their friends because they knew just what their friends liked and despised. It was easy to filter their reviews through their biases.

The Internet swept aside this old system. At first, the old-school critics survived. In the early days of the web, before blogging, the major news outlets still maintained modest circulation. Then along came juggernauts like Amazon, blogs, Yelp, and user-generated forums. Power slowly shifted away from traditional media outlets and taste-making found its way into the hands of ordinary Internet users. Anybody with an Internet connection could now be Roger Ebert. Your review of that obscure Italian thriller you just watched could make or break its sales figures. Unfair perhaps, but who ever said that the Internet was fair?

This all begs the question: is there anything wrong with this? What harm could there be in taking taste-making power away from traditional media and giving it back to regular people? Isn’t this a good thing?

Opinions Are Like…

Visit Yelp right now. Click on a restaurant in your area and read the reviews. Tell me if these reviews strike you as objective or trustworthy. After a while of this, do you find yourself scanning the page, looking only at the number of stars in each review? Do you wish that there were professional reviews for each restaurant? More photos and less filler?

Forget Michelin. The modern seal of approval.

The proliferation of opinions online has rendered user reviews worthless (even those $9.13 Yelp reviews that you just read). We know that these critics lack authority and that they are strangers to us. Yet even though we don’t know their biases, we trust their opinions. What’s worse, opinions often fall into two hyperbolic categories – great (5 stars) or terrible (1 star). Anything in-between reeks of tepid mediocrity and the stench of the critic’s indecision. There is no longer room for neutrality. You are either with it or against it. Having an opinion has become an all-or-nothing game.

What is troubling is not that opinions, however uninformed, now matter, but that, consciously or not, we still heed their advice. How often do we decide against going to a bar or restaurant based only on its average rating on Yelp? Often, we skip the reviews themselves and focus only on the average. We trust the wisdom of the crowd, assuming that their motives are the same as ours.

Dangers of the Crowd

Trusting crowds is dangerous. Yet even knowing this implicitly, we continue to trust the opinions we read on the Internet. We have taken the adventure out of personal discovery and replaced it with a dull reliance on the opinions of others. Instead of walking into that hole-in-the-wall restaurant, we first check it out on Yelp. We rely on the new tastemakers, everyone, to define our own preferences and decide for us what is and is not actually good.

Here we see an increasing shift towards over-reliance on the crowd. The crowd will make the right decision, we are told; the crowd will solve the problem. What we learn though is that the crowd is anything but reliable, that their opinions are often baseless, compromised, or vindictive. We learn that in the end, the crowd defines our tastes, and in doing so, defines who we are.

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