Reviewage: The Culture of Online Opinions

by G. Kim Blank (December 2011)


“pfft, she actually made the students teach the class, she's not a human, she's a bat who lives in her office.” So writes an anonymous university student reviewing her Humanities professor. “Good movie. It was emotional and entertaining. Some aspects didn't make much sense, however. It also bore great actors.” This is Mitchell M. writing (albeit illiterately) about a relatively recent blockbuster movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Someone who calls him or herself Greenbyoo is very enthusiastic about the bestseller, The Help, “because it's an enjoyable summer novel!” And Faye Tangery notes, “I like everything about my 2008 Camry. Just one thing—and it's important—I am very disappointed with the sound system.”

Anonymous, Mitchell, Greenbyoo, and Faye are among the millions who go online to review the various things—big and small, but more often small—that cross their lives. Whether it is ratemyprofessors.com, the rottentomatoes.com movies webpage, the Amazon.com books site, or one of the thousands of places where opinions are invited, we bump or jump into these reviews. They range from emoticons and snippets to pensées and full-blown critiques. Appliances, music, pets, actors, MDs, computers, lovers, condiments, restaurants, websites, hotels, galleries, vacations spots. Events, services, and objects of every possible kind. Nothing escapes the online review.

These reviews are the work of neither professionals nor experts. These are just people who take time to put down their thoughts for webmanity. But why?

Let’s back up a bit.

Both the volume and range of what is accessible via the World Wide Web that sits on the Internet is boggling. With something like one trillion accessible web pages out there, it is not a tower of Babel, but a city of Babel towers that sprawls off into some ever-expanding horizon. And this number is increasing almost as fast at that other impossible number known as the US national debt. Without a doubt, this instant, easy accessibility to so much has changed everything. Almost one third of the world’s population uses the Internet every day. Macabre and surreal though it may sound, and if it has not come to pass already, no doubt someone the verge of starvation will, as a final act, tweet in hopeless desperation—someone with neither food nor water, yet who has a an Internet connection and a PDA.

The effortlessness with which things, largely uncensored, can be added to the Web or to existing sites is correspondingly astonishing, and a part of this is manifest in that phenomenon mentioned above, something we might call the culture of reviewage: the opportunity for and desire of Web users to offer their opinions on just about everything.

Reviewage proliferates between “friends” on social networking sites, via all the instant messaging conduits, and on commercial sites that invite comments or feedback. So too do online newspaper stories and magazine articles often invite readers to chirp in with their opinions. Forums—and there are forums on just about everything, from gardening to gun making—solicit topics to be posted and appraisals to be tendered. Many of the approximately 150 million public blogs out there are little more than glorified reviews—to be charitable, commentary—by people who actually have little to say that matters much to anyone—well, except themselves, perhaps. These blogs are put up for one reason: because they can put up.

And then there are sites like Yelp, which specializes in localized reviews of business and services; it has something like 20 million reviews and more than 50 million visitors a month. And it is not even global. Yet.

Thus the torrent of reviewage. Everyone, it seems, is encouraged to be a digital pundit—or, in the spirit of neologism that the hyper-evolution of the Internet invites, we could do worse than to call these persons digidits.

The extent to which reviewage is cultivated can in fact be seen in the example of Yelp. In a stroke of minor genius, it rewards its registered digidits for the number and quality of their reviews. As marks of achievement, dedication, and membership, it awards them virtual “badges” for their efforts. It works.

This takes us back to the “why” question.

Clearly reviewage plays into the desire to be heard and valued—with the added sense that, as a digidit, you are part of some community, no matter how anonymous or distant or small. Perhaps these dabbling dilettantes contribute in the spirit of public and civic generosity. Or is it the culture of participation gone wild? Personal egotism? Are they hoping to be discovered by The Huffington Post or Boing Boing? Are they bored? Lead empty lives? Just reaching out to touch someone? Maybe they are just hyper-enthusiasts. Maybe someone in elementary school told them that no matter what they say, it is valuable and important.

No doubt these are all-too-human desires, behaviors, and motivations, but, in soliciting and facilitating reviewage, what the Web “performs” is at once subtle, banal, and magical, though perhaps with something addictive lurking behind it. Is there any doubt that checking and rechecking what those screens render is habit forming, and a pernicious form of self-verification? Is that screen a portal or a mirror?

Maybe, too, there’s something else, and it may be related to that desire for self-verification. Now, what follows may sound a little obvious, but it is worth stating: after you put your review up, it stays there. That’s right: you go to that site the next day, and it is still there! Others may have looked at the review, or even responded to it in the ever-expanding cue of reviews. And it could be there the next week. It may be there for a long time. It could even get archived. That sounds good. Who wouldn’t want to be archived, to be in held indefinitely in some electronic memory bank? In short, and to borrow from Wordsworth, the digidit is offered an intimation of immortality, of permanence—and this should never be underestimated as a driver of human behavior, however trivial that pursuit might be.

And then there is the other characteristic that is, at least historically, brand new, and certainly revolutionary. Never has there been a time when someone—rather, anyone—can potentially be “heard” by huge numbers of other people, more or less anywhere on the planet, simply by having access to a pervasive technology.

While this mountain of reviewage seems extraordinarily egalitarian in spirit, it does not mean that it is usefulor smart. It may be what happens when the fallacy of instant expertise becomes confused with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A movie gets seen; suddenly everyone wants the same voice as Roger Ebert. A new band arrives on the scene, and some obscure digidit on an equally obscure blog imagines rivaling the pronouncements of Rolling Stone. A new organic berry bagel is offered at some midwest urban café, and some reviewer, with unmitigated seriousness of purpose and righteousness, writes like they have a place on the Food Channel. Does anyone care? Is anyone listening?

Delusions of grandeur, or merely the inflated drivel of the dull?

But there is another way to look at what is going on. Behind that egalitarian façade, reviewage has shaped two closely related forms of tyranny in the Digital Age.

The first is the tyranny of democracy. Everyone gets an opportunity to sound off. Every voice counts equally: binary code data flow doesn’t care if someone is bonkers or brilliant. The rather cruel truth is that everyone is not equally informed, smart, or intelligible. The web page, with its built-in, clickable urgency, does not make discriminations about credibility. A web page’s authority is, paradoxically, largely mandated by accessibility only.

The other is the tyranny of relativism—that no matter what anyone says, by its existence it is valid in its own shifting, subjective way. If anything, the Web’s inherent restlessness (in the guise of all those beckoning hyperlinks) can make the absolute absolutely impossible to find.

In the merging of these two tyrannies, the proliferation of reviewage arguably amounts to the proliferation of a shared dumbing-down. An allusion to a rather cruel running skit on Saturday Night Live seems appropriate: the overwhelming amount of reviewage facilitated by the Web may be an instance of collective lowered expectations.

The culture of reviewage will no doubt thrive so long as the Web provides access and opportunity. It is no secret that in some cases it is in the interests of those who provide reviewing opportunities that you, the user, stay on the site as long as possible, as well as that you return to it as often as possible. Bucks and bytes invariably connect.

Of course there’s the problem that much of this avalanche of attitude is poorly written, but that’s another issue, and just one more thing for English professors to agonize over.

Best, perhaps, that the final word be left with a real digitdit.

Here is someone called ronbaby reviewing Paul Krugman’s The Return Of Depression Economics And The Crisis Of 2008 on the Amazon.com site. All that ronbaby had to do was click on the “Create your own review” button to offer a judgment, and clearly he did:

“Not a bad book. Krugman knows a lot obviously. He is a very smart person but he gets a little too emotional in his writing and he gets carried away in chastising people and institutions. The book can be a little too much along the way of newspaper writing, trying to fire up people rather than a more dispassionate analysis.”

So there we have it. Ronbaby acknowledges that Krugman, a Nobel Prize winner, knows something, but ronbaby approves neither of his journalistic style nor his apparently unrestrained criticism of those who caused certain large economic problems.

Is this digidit right? Should Krugman tone it down a little? Or do we care what ronbaby has to say? According to Amazon.com, one of two people found ronbaby’s review “helpful.” And maybe that is enough.


G. Kim Blank has published widely in both academic and in popular venues, and sometimes acts as a media consultant. He teaches at the University of Victoria.

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