Going in Blind

When Reviews Work Against You in the Echo Chamber that is the Internet

I stopped reading film and TV reviews about 8 years ago. Pretty much cold turkey. Back then I used to read reviews for one simple reason. I was a college student on a college budget. What I bought, read, watched in a movie theater was all contingent on a weighty Cost/Benefit Analysis.

“Hmm Inception is apparently Leo’s best work in years, reviews say he’ll finally bag an Oscar for this. I should definitely check it out.” Or “This book/series is apparently based on a true story, that sounds incredible, must watch when it releases” and so on.

But then reviews themselves changed, and not for the better in my opinion. Maybe it’s the fact that most of them are read on mobile devices now or the fact that the majority of people reading and reviewing are millennial/Gen Z but reviews seem largely rushed and compressed these days.

Take this real life conversation I had with my wife just recently.

“Do you want to order from that new Japanese place?”

“Nah, it’s only got a 3.5/5 on Yelp (and roughly the same on it’s local equivalents), it’s probably not that good. Plus I don’t want to take any chances with sushi, I’ll end up with food poisoning over raw meat.”

“Yeah makes sense, plus *insert old favorite we’ve been ordering from for years* has an offer/discount on too, lets just stick with that.”

Now just take a second to process what happened, we decided against ordering from a restaurant in its opening weekend basis a star rating system (where it still scored 3.5/5 or 70%) going far enough to question its hygiene.

As I’m typing this the restaurant now has great reviews on all portals and boasts a 4.2/5 rating barely a month after opening. In fact, its kind of our go to option for Japanese food if we’re ordering in.

I started this story with deliberate examples of Movies and Food/Dining because in my experience, they are the most impacted by reviews on a day to day basis. But I’m saving the best (or should I say worst?) for last.

Reading is often the hidden casualty, the unsung martyr when it comes to reviews and expression. If you use any book review portal than you’ll know what I mean. Take for example even a platform that’s more reader-based like Goodreads. You’re so swamped by overwhelmingly polarized reviews — both positive or negative that they end up coloring your opinions before you’ve even had a chance to form them yourself.

I’ve struggled through many 4.5/5 rated books waiting for it to “click” only to be disappointed at the end of 600 pages or more sometimes. I’ve seen some of the finest works of literature and my own personal favorites hover around low to mid rating because some self-proclaimed “critic” decided to vomit a thesaurus onto the review.

Often it seems they’re being contrarian for the sake of it. Often it’s just a Gen Z teen with a smartphone reviewing a classic like 1984, a Stephen King novel or even Hemingway with a characteristically short attention span. Some of them quite obviously don’t even read the book in question.

They either skim or get a 15 minute summary from sites like Blinkist whose sole purpose is compressing long reads into bite sized chunks for people on the go or with not much time to read. Their company motto in fact is “Big ideas in small packages”.

But you can’t put Anna Karenina or The Lord of the Rings into a 15 minute bite sized portion. Some ideas are far beyond compression, some stories deserve better, some works of art need a second chance and all of us need to disconnect from the Hive Mind/Echo chamber of the internet from time to time.

Now I’m not going to criticize products like Blinkist, this might be great for self-help books or craft books from all I’ve heard. But one cannot deny these are catering largely to a generation with an increasingly short attention span and infinite distractions in the palm on their hands. No 15 minute summary can fully encapsulate a good novel or even a well-written short story/novella.

These are the majority of people giving us our reviews. The millennials and gen Z on Goodreads, the outraged customers on Yelp, the increasingly sensitive and polarized audiences on YouTube and Netflix. I just want to clarify that I’m a mid-20s millenial myself and I’m not just throwing my generation’s collective opinions under a metaphorical bus, but one should take our opinions with a pinch of salt.

We want everything now. We want to know if the next 90 minutes of our life will be “worth it” before we start that movie, hence we look at reviews. We’ll substitute a favorite restaurant for new one that’s higher rated by 0.1 points (something I've been guilty of myself), we’ll read a dozen reviews before buying a book. We write off great artists on social media because they don’t have that vaunted blue tick next to their profiles or a million followers. Somewhere along the line, we stopped making up our own minds.

So watch that movie whose premise or trailer interests you. Heck don’t even watch the trailer. Pretend you live in the dark ages of pre-internet. Pick up that book at the airport that isn’t necessarily in the “best-sellers” or “recommended” section. Hit that hole-in-the-wall restaurant that just opened up down the street.

I’ll end with a popular quote from someone whose work could never be done justice in a review or compressed form. Hopefully it’ll resonate better with anyone reading this.

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all who wander are lost”

-J.R.R Tolkien

Freelance writer. Medium tourist, aspiring resident.

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