While snark is apparently the official language of the Internet, for better or for worse, it’s not very often that you come across random acts of sarcasm in places you don’t expect…like Amazon. In my husband’s aimless browsing, he recently found a treasure trove of sarcastic reviews of ridiculously expensive watches: a $34,000 Rolex, an $81,779 Zenith (has anyone heard of this brand before?), andanother Rolex. Need to even out that table on your yacht? Don’t overlook the functionality of a Rolex.
Aside from providing some surprising laughs in an unexpected place, I thought these reviews raised some interesting questions about how we think about online reviews.
I’ve become a recent devotee of Airbnb – for anyone living under a rock for the past year – this site allows anyone to rent a spare room or their entire house or apartment out to travelers and tourists. The site relies on an elaborate system for verifying users “real” identities via social networking profiles as well as requires a “real” telephone number for hosts or potential renters to contact each other. But, the true beauty of this site is in the reviews. Hearing about a potential host’s hospitality, the complimentary bike borrowed to tour the city, the homemade iced tea on offer in the fridge, these are the touches that soothe my nerves when I’m considering shelling out hundreds of dollars to people I’ve never met in a city I’ve (usually) never visited. These kind of reviews are the norm on airbnb, where users seem to really take care to represent their experiences. As a renter, I rely heavily on these reviews and take their authenticity for granted.
Obviously we rely on online reviews for a lot these days…but for me, it’s only when faced with a significant financial investment that I start to realize how fragile this system is, and how much it relies on trusting absolute strangers. This kind of social trust is easier to swallow when picking a restaurant or learning about hiking trails in your new town. But, for many people, trusting one’s vacation plans (or luxury watch purchase) to the “wisdom of the crowd” is too much to ask.
The crowd wisdom theory is based on a statistical phenomenon that occurs when, in great numbers, individual biases cancel each other out and can end up accurately guessing an ox’s weight at a fair (according to Sir Francis Galton) or other more useful things. However, according to recent research, being informed about other’s choices when making your own choice actually screws up the statistical magic at work that underlies the “wisdom of crowds” hypothesis. So, obsessively reading through the reviews of a restaurant may bias my opinion of their marionberry pancakes*? Perhaps all of this sharing of our opinions online has more of an effect than we ever imagined…especially on our Rolex purchases.
*Portlandia reference…it’s streaming on Netflix, get watching!