“What It Is Like To Like,” by Louis Menand. The New Yorker, 6/20/2016. (Book review of You May Also Like, by Tom Vanderbilt.)
Menand’s review discusses the many, often subtitle, reasons we prefer, say, Hershey’s kisses over M&Ms, but here I am focusing on just the discussion of those customer reviews we now see on virtually every product for sale on the Internet.
Internet customer reviews, he tells us, are open sewers. Look at those for a brand of superglue, and you will find they range from a lengthy discussion on the molecular structure by a retiree with too much time on his hands, to a barely literate hothead obsessing about the difficult childproof cap and what’s a spell-checker?
All five-star reviews are the same, but every one-star review is vicious in its own way. Yet we are drawn to the one-star reviews because we want to know how bad the product can be, and often just one bad review blackballs our purchase. There may be 20 good reviews, but we skim over those. They are all the same.
Reviews tend to form a J-curve with many good reviews, a lesser number of bad reviews, and not many in-between. People generally write a review only if they are very pleased or very displeased with the product, and statistically, neither will be our experience.
Studies have shown an initial good review will generate more good reviews, and experienced sellers know this. An author whose book first appears on Amazon will immediately ask a friend to write a favorable review. Like the few dollars salting a tip jar, that’s only good business, and we should expect it. Usually, these are obvious, and we can ignore them.
Ruth Reichl, a food writer, says, “Anybody who believes Yelp is an idiot. Most people on Yelp have no idea what they are talking about.” (I have given up relying on restaurant reviews even from friends speaking to me eye-to-eye. Everyone’s tastes and expectations are too different, and the characteristics of a given restaurant can vary widely by the dish and the day.)
“But,” Menand concludes, “assuming the wisdom of the crowds, it’s probably not that much more untrustworthy than the advice of the salesman at the store, and it beats staring at the label.”
(The exception for me is the advice of the employees at my local Fairfax Hardware store. I will totally go with their recommendations. I kid you not.)