3 Star or bust

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Do you believe everything you read? Are you happy to take the opinion of the clearly ill-informed over those who weigh their words and provide evidence both for and against what they are offering?

Don’t worry, this isn’t about Trump.

I’ll admit that I like to have a sense of whether something is good or bad before trying it and find myself reading reviews on purchases, bars, restaurants, books, movies and, well, pretty much anything I consume or use. It wasn’t something I really considered noteworthy until a friend of mine commented that she always asks me what I think of something because she knows I’ll have researched the shit out of it (she’s classy with words that way). It hasn’t always been this way.

When the first consumer sites started hosting reviews it was a bit of a novelty, you could rate something using stars and leave an opinion detailing why you thought it was good or bad. It all felt very much in the spirit of how the internet was (or at least seemed to be) back then, it was a good thing to share your opinion, to give a little back to the growing community of geeks and nerds. Back then, (we)blogs were on the rise and a certain Mark Zuckerberg was years away from entering college.

Of course in those early days Amazon mostly sold books and a few other items, it wasn’t the behemoth it is today, but as it grew, and more consumer sites started to appear, so did the power and influence of the reviews. The more stuff that became available to us, the more we seem to want our say on whether it was bad or good, ohhh and here are a few paragraphs of text on why I hold that opinion.

Today, with a mind boggling number of things available to consume and use available – seriously, search Amazon for ‘torch’ and you get 346,724 results, even if three quarters of the items aren’t actually torches that still leaves 86,681 types of torch! – you soon develop the ability to sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to reviews, or rather the useful and helpful from the almightily pissed off and BY JUPITERS BEARD everyone is gonna hear about it.

These 1-star reviews are easily identified because they are usually set in ALL CAPS BECAUSE THAT IS HOW BAD THIS THING IS, but at times they are oddly similar in tone to the 5-star reviews which are full of praise and reverence for this most amazing of things that you should buy because IT WILL LITERALLY CHANGE YOUR LIFE IT’S THAT AMAZING!

With so many opinions and views available, I know I’m not alone in wanting a way to figure out what the best things are and over the past couple of years I’ve been continually delighted by the consistency of approach, information, and recommendations from The Wirecutter and The Sweethome, two review websites who take detailed looks at products, test them, review them, review the reviews of them (wheat from chaff!) and give you their reasoning as to why X is better than Y (and if you don’t like X then why you should consider buying Z). Essentially they apply more rigor, science, and patience than I do and as a result I’m almost trusting enough of their considered opinion to buy their recommendation without reading their full review (almost, I’m not a weirdo).

Despite being a regular consumer of reviews, for a long time I’d only ever sporadically written reviews on this blog. It’s just never really been a thing I felt comfortable sharing and the few times I have have been mostly gigs or movies and not massively insightful beyond OMG that was totally awesome because I’ve written them too soon after said gig/movie and I’m still caught up in the emotions of it.

However I have been writing reviews, quite a lot of them, just not here. A few months after I moved to Glasgow I realised I wasn’t really exploring it, wasn’t really trying new places to eat, drink, or visit. To combat that I started using Yelp. For the first few months I used it to search for places to go, but eventually I signed up and started writing reviews to ‘give back’ to some of the places I had visited that I enjoyed, particularly those who had old reviews or no reviews at all.

I’ve been on Yelp for over five years now. In that time I became a Yelp Elite and started attending local Yelp community events (which Yelp recently ditched, boooo) and over the last 90 days the 300 odd reviews I’ve posted have been read over 25,000 times. Far far above the numbers I see here. This still staggers me, that the words I write have been seen by so many people and, I hope, helped them make a decision, one way or another. But as nice as the numbers are, my desire to write reviews isn’t solely about that (I’m not that shallow, honest). No, I write them to give back, to put something back out into a service that I have found useful.

It’s very easy these days, with so many free services available, to take without giving back. Recently I’ve been wondering if, in some small way, this aspect of the internet, this expectation of ‘free’ isn’t hurting the world at large. The more people who drop into that mindset and let it permeate their everyday lives, the more society may start to drift and change into something a lot more selfish. Look out for yourself, screw everyone else.

It does feel like the prevailing attitude these days is “why should I bother, someone else will do it”. I can be as guilty of it as the next person, and it’s not much of a leap from that to a larger world view that is selfish and self-centred, a view that is shaped by the information I chose to take in because it is easily obtained and already part of my world view.

And bearing that in mind, is it that much more of a leap to see why Brexit was voted through? Is it really a surprise that Trump is President?*

OK, I’ll admit the leap I’m making here is a large one; from not bothering to write a review to the fact a country voted in an unintelligent brutish man-child as President. It just seems that, at the moment, the world is turning to all those 1 and 5 star reviews, the ones that can’t be trusted because they are singular of view and devoid of fact, and using them as the basis of how society should be.

Now, maybe it’s just me, but I think most of us want a world that lies somewhere in-between and we accept that sometimes it’ll be a 2-star place, and sometimes it’ll be a 4-star place, but we know that those 1-star and 5-star reviews need to be taken with a very large pinch of salt.

* OK, I fibbed. But I promise I didn’t set out to write about Trump…


Also published on Medium.