Inside Story

Fakers, makers and takers

… not to mention genuinely useful views and reviews. Emily van der Nagel assesses a new study of online comments

Emily van der Nagel 16 July 2015 1012 words

Where it all began: the Michelin guides were among the earliest to review and rate. Jørgen Schyberg/Flickr

Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web
By Joseph M. Reagle | MIT Press | $53.95

When Bic released the For Her ballpoint pen, with its “elegant design – just for her!”, sarcastic Amazon reviews criticised the product’s unnecessary gendering:

At last pens for us ladies to use… now all we need is “for her” paper and I can finally learn to write!

I’d really like to buy a pack of these pens; but I probably need my father’s or husband’s permission first. Like I do with all my financial decisions.

I used one of these pens post-hysterectomy, and my uterus grew back. Thanks a lot, Bic. Thanks a whole hell of a lot.

This style of feedback is deliberately playful – it thwarts the expectation that an online review will give an honest assessment of product quality by using the format to remark on the broader social context. It is one of the many forms of comment catalogued in Reading the Comments. Comment, Joseph Reagle argues, leads to more comment – and it’s hard to disagree while I’m reviewing his book.

“Don’t read the comments” is a common exhortation, one that Twitter user @AvoidComments has extended by remarking that “there’s a reason that comments are typically put on the bottom half of the internet.” But Reagle makes a case for their importance, arguing that in sifting through comments “we can learn much about ourselves and the ways that other people seek to exploit the value of our social selves.”

Reagle’s earlier book, Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia (2010), illustrated his commitment to participating in and studying online content and collaboration. In Reading the Comments, he acknowledges that comment has existed as a genre since the advent of writing but has proliferated online. On the internet, context can shift rapidly: as a message circulates, the link between a comment and its object is easily broken, leading to multiple possible meanings that don’t always match the author’s intentions.

Reagle defines the comment as reactive, short and asynchronous. This broad definition lets him explore a vast territory, but his decision to consider all forms of review, feedback, critique, evaluation and rating as part of the genre means that the book can seem unfocused. It veers into material as disparate as people manipulating CAPTCHA systems, beta readers of fanfiction giving authors feedback on drafts, and Twitter “bashtags” – the practice of appropriating a hashtag’s meaning by flooding it with oppositional sentiments. All these might tangentially relate to comments, but they feel like diversions from the book’s main topic. In one instance of unconvincing overreach, Reagle backs up his claim that comments can affect their author’s status with the observation that “a diploma is a comment about academic standing.”

Reagle’s discussion of “mean kids” deals with what is problematic about comment culture. The cover of Reading the Comments shows hands typing at a keyboard, the background ominously darkened, erasing the figure behind them. Search for “online comments” in Google images and you’ll get the same kind of picture: a man grimacing as he attempts to restrain cartoon speech bubbles; clenched fists hovering near a laptop screen; the Facebook thumbs-up icon reversed to show a thumb pointing down. But after noting that people can be thoughtlessly cruel when they’re anonymous, Reagle again turns back to reviews, examining bullying comments on book review site Goodreads.

The strongest parts of Reading the Comments are those that focus on product reviews. It’s no wonder, given that Reagle describes himself as a “review addict” who spends hours reading about products to assure himself that his purchasing decisions are wise. He places Amazon reviews and Facebook “likes” in a tradition that dates back to the eighteenth century, when the spread of print fuelled the demand for literature to be compiled, organised and appraised. With literacy growing alongside a burgeoning consumer culture, he writes, the earliest guides began to appear. In 1900, the Michelin guide began using the train guide convention of awarding stars to indicate the class or cost of hotel accommodation. In the 1930s, Michelin introduced a three-star system: a two-star restaurant or hotel was “worth a detour”; three stars meant it was “worth a journey.” Now, sites like Amazon let customers rank the products they have purchased online from one to five stars, adding to a growing glut of information about books, digital cameras and bacon-flavoured toothpaste.

Online reviews are increasingly important to businesses large and small. On the American restaurant review site Yelp, an average review of 3.5 stars or higher increases a restaurant’s chances of filling its tables at peak times by 19 per cent. Even when the reviews aren’t all positive, the fact that a restaurant or product attracts many reviews can be enough to drive traffic to the business.

The great value of positive reviews means the review system is worth manipulating. Reagle explores various forms of manipulation, distinguishing between “fakers,” who praise their own or their friends’ products, “makers,” whose positive reviews can be bought, and “takers,” who arrange false reviews. Sockpuppet accounts espouse the views of a product’s creator; discounts and prizes are offered to those who write positive reviews; and “reputation services” post negative reviews and then blackmail their subjects by charging high fees to remove them. Being mindful of all these limitations, rather than ignoring reviews completely, seems the best approach.

Reagle’s book about “the stuff in the margins” of the internet could have been an excellent critical investigation into review culture. My final assessment? As a book about online comments: two out of five stars. As a book about the history, potential and complications of online reviews: it’s five out of five from me. •