Sometimes, when I’m bored, I visit the most lawless corner of the Internet: the reviews section of Amazon products. The /r/amazonreviews subreddit on Reddit captures thoughts from some of humanity’s brightest minds, from one angry reviewer’s discovery that “The Wolf of Wall Street” is not “a documentary about how urbanization is affecting wildlife” to another’s five-star rating on a casket purchase: “No complaints from grandpa”.
As lighthearted as they can be, reviews are good for more than a quick laugh. The Internet is now instrumental in determining where, when, and how we spend our time and money. A restaurant review on Google or Yelp informs where we decide to eat dinner tonight. A new movie’s Metacritic user rating determines whether we go to the theater that weekend. For college students, comments posted on RateMyProfessor can shape schedules – and, in some cases, career trajectories.
Although Internet reviews hold immense power, we often choose not to wield it for ourselves. Over time, Internet users have self-sorted into two categories: reviewers and observers. Many of us take from the Internet often, but the idea of giving back never crosses our minds.
But when we remain silent much of the time, we allow only the most opinionated to dominate online discourse. Reviews naturally skew negative, often disproportionately; after all, you’re more likely to voice your opinion if you’ve had a negative experience than a positive one. Yet this subconscious bias towards negativity favors large businesses over small ones, big names over new players, and corporations over workers. For example, a high-profile restaurant might be able to weather the effect of a few angry customers because of the hundreds of positive comments they have already amassed. But for a newly-opened competitor down the street, just a handful of one-star ratings can mean the difference between staying afloat and going out of business. We can extend this same logic into nearly any service-based aspect of our lives: a review for a necklace sold on Etsy will matter more than one sold at Target, a performance evaluation will matter more for an adjunct professor than a tenured one. Everywhere we go, we have the power to affect the “new kids on the block,” who are often the most vulnerable in a world dominated by big business.
Moreover, reviewing without intentionality helps perpetuate societal inequalities. Studies have shown that Yelp reviews for restaurants in Black neighborhoods tend to have lower reviews and use descriptors like “dangerous” than similar ones in White neighborhoods. Male customer service representatives are much more likely to receive positive evaluations than their female counterparts. RateMyProfessor evaluations also skew towards White men, and sometimes even have nothing to do with a professor’s teaching at all (although you didn’t really need an academic study to know that that was true). There’s also a strong case that a world in which negative impulses decide what we share on the Internet is inherently harmful to our society. Even just scrolling through negative comment sections can make us less happy and more likely to share negative thoughts of our own.
That’s why I’m putting forth a new model for our online interactions: The Giving Internet, where we move away from allowing a select few to control how we perceive the world around us. It is a model that is both more conscious (of race, gender, and other identities) and more conscientious (of the way our actions affect those around us). It emphasizes the importance of taking time: both to voice our displeasures, but also to broadcast the people, places, and tools that have made our lives happier and more convenient. When we discover a great new restaurant, we can rave on Google so that others might discover it too. When we receive exceptional service, we can go out of our way to make sure the efforts of those providing it are rewarded.
Some, of course, already make these behaviors habitual. However, there are many others who have treated reviews only as something to be read, not to be written. In response, I argue that positivity is not an inherent personality trait but a behavior to be learned, practiced, and refined. Spending more time giving thanks to others not only helps others make decisions about their time and their money, but also creates a more pleasant Internet overall.
There are other caveats with this argument as well. In a previous column, I have lamented the meaninglessness of “screaming loudly in the middle of the jungle gym” that is the Internet. The more deeply embedded the product or service we review is, the less likely any individual review will matter. On Amazon, for example, sellers routinely manipulate algorithms to give themselves thousands of five-star reviews. Here, I make no presumption that leaving positive reviews are anything but a waste of time.
A more fundamental challenge that many would-be reviewers face is that being open, opinionated, or even just any sort of decent on the Internet leaves you vulnerable to attack in an age dominated by bots and trolls. This is a valid concern, and we should not sacrifice our own mental health to further some abstract sense of “positivity.” On The Giving Internet, we should ignore any bad-faith actors we encounter. More often than not, our enthusiasm will be reciprocated by others – because just as negativity breeds negativity on the Internet, gratitude creates a positive feedback loop of its own.
At the end of the day, we must remember that our reviews matter. They have the power to make or break the livelihoods of small business owners. They can determine what messages our movies and television shows send to us. And as college students, they can literally determine how much and how well we learn in our classes. Navigating the Internet - and society as a whole - can feel daunting and lonely. Reviews are our chance to make our voices heard in this vast world — so why not inject positivity whenever you can?
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