Hell hath no fury like a customer dissatisfied.
Review spaces and businesses dedicated to amassing and analyzing consumer feedback sprout up daily. More and more, reviews are high coinage in the online economy used to purchase reputation and sales. In this sense, reviews are providential: the people who write reviews influence livelihoods and determine real-world outcomes. In this economy, reviewers can either carry you to success or can bury you in ruin. And yet, when we take on the role of Reviewer, we often forget or are simply unaware of this power and its consequences.
I’m sure you’ve seen the viciousness with which reviewers write about businesses and everyday people. Personally, I have seen bartenders, servers, business owners, YouTubers and YouTube bystanders either torn to shreds or exalted. It’s a modern day gallows. It’s public castigation and essentially another iteration of the public will dictating the lives of everyday people. It’s messy, it’s reactionary, and it’s powerful.
Marketers and public relations specialists are keenly aware of this power and its vulnerabilities. There are rafts of online material available about “digital marketing” that center on how to filter reviewers, how to draw in choice reviewers, and how to sway influencers such as bloggers, celebrities, social leaders and other people with numerous followers to publicly endorse you and your product. It’s an entire social infrastructure that underpins our cyber lives.
Tragically, the incidence of scathing and near violent commentary is not isolated to review spaces alone. This behavior fits neatly into a larger narrative about cyberbullying, cyberviolence, and a growing awareness the nature of virtual communication and its effects on the real people. The recent tide of Islamophobia online and its physical consequences tells a cautionary tale about what we condone online and how that might sanction further violence.
Although public disparagements and endorsements are not a new phenomenon (See: politics), the extent and the volume are new. We create and destroy at an unprecedented rate. Not only that, we direct it toward each other. Reviews, in particular, are posted, exchanged, and collected in massive quantities everyday.
Take Yelp as an example. As of April 2014 there were approximately 26,380 reviews posted every minute on Yelp. The amount of claimed businesses on Yelp as of April 2015 was 2.1 million. That’s roughly 2.1 million opportunities to either build up or destroy at least one person’s life. Of course, it doesn’t usually play out this extremely but the possibility exists.
Research into the impact of user-reviewers on Yelp and into the language used in 1- to 5-star reviews tells us a few interesting things. It tells us that 1) The numeric difference between star reviews has disproportionately larger effects on business success than the numeric difference suggests; and 2) We seem to be inherent skeptics when it comes to reviews.
To save you the trouble of reading the research, let me tell you that whether or not you choose to post a 1-, 2-, 3-, 4-, or 5-star review matters, and you should really think about it.
The research indicates that when we see a 3-star review, we tend to assume the worst. In other words, the positive sway of either a 2- or a 3-star review is equally as low and therefore negligible; They might as well be the same. On the other hand, the negative sway of a 1-star review means, “MMM? bye!” A 4- to 5-star review ranges from good to no questions asked, respectively. So instead of 5 distinct choices, you really have 3. You either give the business a 1-star if you disliked it, a 4-star if you aren’t 100% confident that you loved it, or a 5-star if you loved it. The 2- to 3-star review differential is insignificant.
As of this year there have been attempts to launch sites that let you rate human beings. Peeple allows you to rate your friends, co-workers, bosses, and lovers on a scale of 1- to 5-stars. It is based on the premise that “Character is destiny” and the belief that “character” should be “a new form of currency.” Peeple has been in the beta-testing phase (testing with volunteers) for about 3 months now—probably due to unilateral criticism and public shaming.
Paradoxically, Peeple’s critics raised salient issues such as cyberbullying, the imposition of value systems, the real-world consequences, and a number of other important considerations. And yet we seem to raise no red flags with business-focused review platforms. The problems critics fear with Peeple are already being fulfilled.
Given the impact of these reviews and the flawed decision-making that goes into them, my concern is that when we, as Reviewers, impulsively condemn and attack businesses and thereby people, we not only play judge and jury in a way that we may not fully appreciate, but we also perpetuate an ethic that is incongruous with our daily lives—or so I’d like to think. In many cases, our micro-vengeance causes macro-damages, damages caused by words that we wouldn’t utter if we were face-to face-with the people they were targeting.
It’s easy to tear into someone or their business when you’re miles and miles of webspace away from them. The reality is that we take that vengeful and vindictive behavior with us wherever we go, and, the person on the receiving end does too. The online context is still new and I’m sure our morality just hasn’t caught up with us, but when it does, what will our ethics look like?
At base there is nothing wrong with review spaces. In fact, I think the wisdom of the masses is useful and a boon to society. However, I believe we ought to take notes from Spider-Gramps:
“With great power, comes great responsibility.”
*I’d like to thank my insightful friends, Willis Mathewson and Francis Pastorelle, for editing this article before publication.