January 13, 2010
Lately I have been wondering whether online reviews should remain legal.
Yeah, I know. That just set off all of your alarms.
Free speech, etc., blah, blah.
It helped when I bought my barbecue, etc., blah, blah.
It’s easy to tell the useful ones from the bad ones, etc., blah, blah.
It keeps the seller honest, etc. blah, blah.
I will stipulate that all the obvious arguments in favor of online reviews are valid. But there are a few things you might not know.
Keep in mind that I get reviewed online often, for Dilbert and non-Dilbert books, my restaurant, and anything else I seem to do. I could be accused of being biased, and obviously I am, but I’m also experienced in a way that you probably are not. And luckily my positive reviews have far outpaced the bad ones. I should be a fan of the system.
I also consult online reviews for just about anything I intend to consume, so I am no stranger to their utility. I’d miss them if they were gone.
My argument for making online reviews illegal is that illegitimate reviews have a huge potential economic impact. For example, when I published my book that was a collection of blog posts (Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain), I got hammered with one-star reviews from people who loved the writing from which it came. Their gripe was that, in their opinion, blog material should remain free and online. I had somehow violated a rule I didn’t realize was a rule, and so I was punished with negative reviews. The one-star reviews dragged down the average star rating on Amazon and presumably influenced other buyers.
Any controversial writer – and I sometimes fall into that category (Google “God’s Debris”), gets one-star reviews from people who want to suppress certain points of view. Online reviews are the digital equivalent of book burning. True Believers from the left and the right pile in to drive reviews low enough to sink book sales. It is activism masquerading as reviews.
As a restaurant owner, you learn that many local businesses have anti-Yelp teams. When a negative review appears on yelp.com, they call their crew of fake reviewers to give glowing reviews and push the negative one down. And by the way, the negative reviews are often from the customer-from-Hell types who were drunk at the time of the alleged “dirty look” from a hostess or whatever sets them off to say the cheesecake was chewy. Most online reviews are entirely legitimate, but you would be surprised at how many are not.
As an amateur hypnotist and a professional writer, I’m a longtime student of how people choose their words. I feel I can identify fake reviews, at least some of the time, which might explain why I’m more alarmed than you. Still, I’ve purchased items with high reviews and realized later that I was obviously duped. There’s a fine line between good marketing and grand larceny. If you think you’re smart enough to tell the difference, you might be giving yourself too much credit.
If your argument in favor of online reviews is that they are helpful more often than not, I would submit that there is no way to measure that. My gut feeling is that enough people have crapped on the beach to make sunbathing no longer fun.
If your argument is that freedom of speech is enough of a reason to allow online reviews, that’s a kneejerk reaction. One must weigh the benefits versus the costs and decide if the destruction of millions of jobs, which I’m sure is the case, and widespread fraud, which is also clearly the case, is worth the freedom.
If it were up to me, I would allow online reviews to remain legal. I value the freedom higher than the costs. I’m sure that’s where most of you come down too. But if you think it’s a clear call, you might be naïve.