Comments, Online and Off

Well, this is fascinating: apparently web reviewers often make up reviews of things they have not bought – and the culprits aren’t, as you’d expect, the competitors. Rather, it’s loyal customers:

The cranky customers are acting, the study concludes, as “self-appointed brand managers.” To put it another way, they are venting. The review forum gives them a simple and direct means of doing so: I hated this product, so listen to me.

As Mr. Simester put it in an interview: “Your best friends are your worst critics.” The study mentions in passing that Harley-Davidson’s customers were upset when the company introduced a perfume. They took it personally. The same phenomenon seems to be operating here and, perhaps, all over the Web, distorting the review process in a way never imagined.

The study concluded, among other things, that companies ought to beware of reading web-based reviews and using them as the basis for their decision-making: “. . .behavior online is too easily taken as a mirror of reality when it is nothing of the sort. What seems to be the voice of the masses is the voice of a self-appointed few, magnified and distorted.”

This fascinates me right now because, of course, as an editor and writer whose work is largely published to the web, I have noticed that the vast number of commenters and emailers are unhappy customers, of a sort: they don’t like what we’re giving them, or they don’t think it fits the “brand” of what we’re doing. (This has been true no matter where I’ve worked!) I developed a thick skin for this sort of thing pretty early on, and now I just take it in stride (or I couldn’t work!) but I still notice the comments, the criticisms, and the suggestions.

But there are two interesting things about this pattern.

First, I’m also a college professor, and one thing we get at the end of every semester is student evaluations. I also receive a lot of emails from students, notes on exams, and so on – things I don’t solicit. I find the percentage of positive comments, expressions of gratitude, and so on are much higher from students than the percentage of comments on articles or emails from readers. I don’t think this is because my teaching is so much better than my writing/editing (in fact, just the opposite; I’m less polished and thoughtful in the classroom almost by default, because I spend so much more time in there!).

The only difference I can see is that my students and I get in a lot of face time. They see me; I see them. They’re interested in me and I’m interested in them. We spend a lot of time in the same classroom, and that presence must account for the uptick in encouragement. (I’ve received emails on multiple occasions from students after exams, thanking me for the exam, because they liked taking it and learning for it. That’s crazy, but certainly unsolicited!) As a professor, this makes me concerned for the move toward online education. I’ve taught online and in the classroom, and that presence is not the same online as in the classroom. It’s much easier to be critical or to forget to pass on your positive comments when all the interaction is through the mediating internet.

Second, this study reminded me that it’s likely that many of the people who pass along critical comments are actually very invested in the “product” – not all of them, by a long shot, but many of them. So it’s worth listening to, of course – and it’s worth being grateful that people take time to say their piece, even while keeping it all in balance.

What do you think?

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  • Susan_G1

    I believe that with all unsolicited comments, the negative generally outnumber the positive. For example, an emergency department may see 55,000 patient visits in one year. During that year, the hospital administrator may well receive, say, 150 letters of complaint about the ED. The same administration may receive, say, 20 letters of appreciation. However, the same (concerned) hospital launches a patient satisfaction study and randomly picks hundreds of ED patients (soliciting opinions), sending them a questionnaire and a stamped, self-addressed return envelope, and the results are overwhelmingly positive. Why? This is exactly what happened in my hospital. It’s easier to make time and exert energy to express negative emotions than positive ones. The psychology of that I’ll leave to psychologists.

    Jesus cured 10 lepers. Cured them, changed their lives so completely, from sick to well, yes, but from outcast to community! Why did only one turn back to thank him? When I’m feeling unappreciated, I’m comforted by this. How much less I do for people than completely change their lives. So, I figure 1 in 100 or 1,000 may make unsolicited positive comments. That doesn’t mean I should approach my work with any less due diligence or compassion or love. I do it because I love it, and it’s my work.

    I do, however, very much appreciate the flowers and cards when they come.