Chances are if you have read commentary and reviews of products and services online, you are reading lots of fakes. Various estimates put this at a third or more, either outright fakes or paid-to-post by organizations looking to game the system. In other words, buyer beware.
“There is a reason comments are put on the bottom half of the Internet,” says one post from the once active Twitter account AvoidComments. The account also includes this one: “The problem with internet comments is that you can never really know who’s saying them.” — Winston Churchill. Yeah, I bet he really did say that, and probably to Al Gore just after the Internet was created.
But enough snarky anecdotes. A communications professor has attempted a semi-scholarly work entitled Reading the Comments, and it is actually an interesting book despite this description. Joseph Reagle knows his subject and sprinkles enough curse words throughout his book to make it almost NSFW if you were going to read it aloud — which mirrors some of the online comments that he quotes from as you might suspect.
I guess I was pretty much naive when I began reading his book. I didn’t think much about the various reviews that I read about restaurants, hotels, or particular products. But I can see how things have gotten out of control in the past decade especially. Now you can pay someone a buck or so to write a review and have it look like it is coming from someone that actually used the product or service. Yelp is apparently infested with this sort of thing, and just recently a restaurant in the bay area rebutted a negative review with video footage of the reviewer and how he spent literally seconds inside the restaurant, mostly standing around.
Reagle states that “Online discussion of sexism or misogyny quickly results in disproportionate displays of sexism and misogyny.” He cites several now well-known cases of where women were buried in negative comments just because they were female.
He describes an entire universe of fakers, haters, and takers and how they have flourished online. That was both eye-opening and depressing. Then there is a whole sub genre of intentionally funny reviews. Computer scientists are using them to train natural language processing to detect irony. Think of them as Sheldon’s answer to the Turing test.
As someone who still writes product reviews for a living (mostly now for Network World, where you can read my collection here), this pains me. Most of the pubs that I once wrote reviews for have folded their tents, and it is getting harder to recruit vendors to support these reviews as of late.
Yes, I have posted some comments on Amazon, TripAdvisor and AirBnB, but only out of some loyalty to the books I read or places I stayed or ate at. AirBnB has this interesting log-rolling ethos built-in to their site. Once you stay at a place, you rate your host and your host rates you. That takes some of the snark out of your comments, but it also helps to improve the descriptions of each place and the expectations you have when you are choosing where to stay. And help to make sure that you are on your best behavior too.
Still, comments can tell us much about the human condition, and the social fabric of our lives. Perhaps too much, as many Gen X’ers are prone to oversharing. But that is for another column and another day. In the mean time, you can pre-order Reagle’s book, which will be available in May, here. And remember, as our Twitter friends have posted: Nobody on their deathbed ever said, “I wish I had spent more time reading Internet comments.”