Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Online reviews and so on

This is Rory Sutherland.talking about 5 start reviews, two-way reviews (taxi drivers review customers as well as vice versa) and so on. I was struck by this: "Someone from an electronics company told me they have to keep manufacturing an obsolete version of a piece of kitchen equipment, even though it is superseded. After five years, the older product had acquired so many positive reviews on Amazon it was impossible to retire it."

Perhaps it's an urban myth, but it does tell us something about what we lose when critics and advertising lose their status. Back in the long-forgotten days before the internet, if you wanted to know whether a book (or a bit of kitchen equipment) was any good you would have to read a review written by someone who had a job reading books (or testing kitchen equipment) and writing about them. You would then easily see that the MegaBlender was the improved version of the TurboBlender. Equally, where advertising has some purchase then 'new and improved' (or 'revised and expanded edition' on the cover of a book) tells you something that a series of 5 star reviews does not.

That's not to say that nothing has been gained from the new system. We can see that if we stop to ask who the old reviewers were, whether they were really such experts, what their biases were, did they really have the ability to read everything (and blend everything) in the way that the crowds of the internet can. But it's also worth noting that the endgame of online reviews must be clever algorithms that weigh up reviewers' critical faculties such that we end up with advice extracted from the morass of reviews which is as incisive and helpful as (and more comprehensive than) the best of pre-internet criticism.

Here is Sutherland's other point: "Quite a few of my favourite places are not universally well liked on TripAdvisor, but are highly polarising. ... We don’t really need the Michelin Guide. The Marmite Guide to the world’s most divisive hotels and restaurants would make a much more interesting read." The internet can help with that: I bet it is not too difficult to find out which of TripAdvisor's hotels are the most polarising.

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