Revenge Is Best Served Boiling


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 cyberbullyingcyberviolence, 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.


  1. It is, in my opinion, outstanding how you compared the beginnings, however primitive, of the site “Peeple” used for people-rating to business-rating. In plain sight it is easy, even for a more shallow thinker, to come to the conclusion that people-rating is somewhat barbaric and cruel. Having made the comparison, even simple-minded folk may come to the realization that business-rating is just as barbaric as “Peeple”.

    I have left business-reviews on Yelp myself, but I don’t do it when I really didn’t love the place. Just because my experience wasn’t that great at the time I went somewhere, I don’t want to usurp the possible customer or client for a business, or usurp the consumer of a good experience. It is as if I assume the responsibility of “God”, i.e. I make the decision where everyone should go, and even does go, just by saying, or commanding it so.

    Really good article Andrew! Always enjoy reading your words of astute wisdom!


    • Thank you for taking the time to read the article and respond! I am sorry that I didn’t get back to you sooner.

      I think that is a fine approach, and I am happy that you are mindful of the effects of reviews. However, I don’t think that the takeaway should be that we not leave negative reviews; rather, that we leave negative reviews in an objective and level-headed way, so as to actually inform.

      I have left negative reviews myself. In those moments I have tried to be moderate and informative, not vindictive.

      Let me know your thoughts!


  2. Great article — I don’t think that I’ve read something of yours that I didn’t enjoy.

    The anonymity and reach of the internet is simultaneously the best and worst part of the internet. Cyberbullying is bad — really bad. I don’t know how to solve it. It’d be great if people could be critical on the internet without being aggressive and offensive. Is that a culture thing or an internet thing? I don’t know.

    One thing your narrative focuses on how we use metrics (numbers) to make value judgements on individuals. You seem to have a negative reaction to this, and it is here I have a different opinion than you.

    You make a brief concession on the benefits of having a collective voice. I feel that this point is under-served in your article. Economics has a foundational assumption that all parties have perfect information. In my opinion, this is a flawed assumption. However, thanks to technology and services such as Yelp, we as consumers are much more informed and can make better decisions. With metrics, we can make decisions quickly, which I value. In addition, this increased knowledge puts pressure on companies and services to change or die.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I’m comfortable with a New York bartender receiving some feedback on his work — though it may be out of his / her control — in order for hidden gems to survive and flourish. Without this faceless rating system, we’d have to rely solely on marketing, which I consider a bad thing.

    I’m in favor of using metrics push us to be our best selves. Sure, numbers don’t tell the story. We’re complex people, but numbers can give us a clue about ourselves and our surroundings. Why have goals if you can’t measure them.

    Hopefully this is english.


    • I’m so sorry that I didn’t get back to you sooner about this!

      There is a Tweet that has been circulating the Internet recently that reads something to the effect of: “I wish people would realize that not every disagreement is an argument.” I think it’s difficult for us to distance ourselves from disagreements enough to have them without feeling personally attacked. In my experience, it’s an acquired skill.

      Now for the meat of your comment.

      I see what you’re saying about metrics being revelatory and imperfect. I agree that we often have to take the good with the bad. However, there are certain imperfections that have greater consequences than others, and some that are more tolerable than others. I believe we can agree on this, yes? This isn’t a fault of the numbers themselves, nor is it an inherent flaw in metrics. It is, however, a shortcoming that programmers and innovators alike must contend with and aim to resolve, or risk compromising the integrity of the rating system. Of course countless people use Yelp and programs like it to rate businesses, people, and the like, but when more and more people are negatively affected by the system, it creates doubt and furor. If I am not mistaken, Yelp’s CEO is currently under media and legal scrutiny for this very issue?

      In other words, my criticism is less so about the perils of quantifying the unquantifiable and more so an ethical one, insofar as programming and usage are concerned. How can we create more temperance among reviewers and better review systems to weed out imbalanced and potentially harmful reviews? Yelp attempted to do something like this with its algorithmic update in 2015 (filtration system), but in my humble opinion, it sucks.

      Let me know your thoughts. And again, sorry for the delay!<3


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