Art/Culture / Other

Reviewing the act of reviewing

Recently, an electric scooter I bought in late November stopped being able to hold a charge. I tried contacting customer service, but five email exchanges and two phone calls later, all I had was a dead scooter. The experience left a bad taste in my mouth. 

It wasn’t just that this scooter had died. I felt like I was conversing with a bot when I interacted with customer service.  Over email, I was repeatedly asked to provide the same information and never got direct answers to my questions. I could never get a real person on the phone. 

Eventually, I bit the bullet and bought a new battery but not before leaving an honest two-star review on Amazon. $300 is too much to spend on something that only lasts five months. And a new battery cost about half of that. Within a week, someone from the scooter company reached out to me and offered to send me a new battery. We worked it out, and the company refunded me for the battery I bought. Then, they asked if I would rewrite my review.

I was glad they didn’t approach me with an explicit quid pro quo–though that wouldn’t have been unprecedented. A few years ago my mom bought a defective product and left a one-star review. The seller reached out and offered her a full refund in exchange for rewriting her review. She told them to keep the money. She couldn’t be bought like that (my paraphrase). 

When I didn’t change my review after a week, I got a follow up email. The customer service employee said that two star reviews could hurt their sales. She said she could be fired if I didn’t change my review.

Screen shot of email I received from the scooter company. It reads: Hi Serena, 
Sorry to bother you. It's my honor to serve you. 
Glad to tell you that I have issued the full refund for your order. May I ask if you have received the refund? Looking forward to hearing your feedback. 
Besides, if you're satisfied with my customer service, could you do me a quick favor, please? Could you kindly rewrite your shopping experience on the Amazon site? Because 2 sta'r hurts our sales and I will be fired by my boss. 
I really hope that you can take 60 seconds to reshare your shopping experience on the Amazon site so that I keep my job. I really cherish my job. I really hope that I can continue to provide quality service to kind customers like you in the future. And I will always remember your kindness. Thank you so much: ) 
Thank you in advance.
Kind Regards,

I don’t know that I believe her, and I think it’s fairly manipulative to approach customers this way. But part of me couldn’t help but wonder: what if she was telling me the truth?

Power of reviews

Today, the world runs on reviews. They help us decide what to buy, where to eat, and what experiences are worth having. Before the internet, you might have to ask around about a certain product or program, now, you can find thousands of opinions with a few keystrokes.

We are inundated with reviews and requests for feedback––even if we don’t have experience with or knowledge of the thing we are reviewing. Author John Green, wrote a whole book and podcast titled “The Anthropocene Reviewed,” based on this premise. 

“I noticed that suddenly everyone was a reviewer and everything was a subject for review,” Green told me for IndyStar last year. “Not just of products that you buy on Amazon and books you read and haircuts you get and restaurants, but also of national parks and of these broad experiences.”

We’re asked to review increasingly benign social interactions. How was your check out experience at the grocery store? How was my experience buying a battery off the scooter company’s website? I just received an automated email asking for another review.  

Is it just for the brand loyalty?

And perhaps, this constant asking for feedback isn’t just a way to improve customer service or market to others. As Marissa Conrad writes for the Boston Globe, it might actually be a way to make us feel better about our future purchases and our loyalty to the brand. 

Phrases such as “How’d we do?” are “subtly moving you towards humanizing the company,” Pankaj Aggarwal, a professor of marketing at the University of Toronto told Conrad for the Globe. “So it’s not a store anymore, it’s the people behind it, right?”

This is also complicated by the fact that celebrities, influencers, authors, and basically anyone in the public sphere has to cultivate a brand too. In this case, there are people behind brand, but they’re also trying to sell something. Consumers are left to wrestle with the ethics/effects of those parasocial relationships alone. 

The complicated language of the five star scale

The world of reviews often revolves around the five-star scale. It collapses the constellation of disparate opinions into numbers which are easy to manipulate and glance out. We obviously lose some nuance in the process, but there are places where that’s not all bad. 

Goodreads is the closest platform I’ve used to a Yelp for books. While comparing books based on their ratings can be complicated and at times, impossible (the system that ranks Harry Potter over most classic novels should probably be taken with a grain of salt), I would be lying if I said I didn’t use the average to inform my reading decisions. I try not to read too much about a book before I start reading, especially if I’m reviewing it myself.

On the other hand, the five-star scale is also tricky. It’s a language we all gain our own intuition for, and when we don’t all do it the same way the lack of nuance can cause major problems. What is the baseline? What rating should people give mundane interactions?

For platforms like Uber, five-star reviews are the norm due to rating inflation. A three-star average would be a major red flag. In fact, Uber kicks drivers with below a 4.6 average off of its platform. And our drivers are also rating us. What even constitutes five-star passenger behavior? Uber hasn’t released the threshold deactivating rider accounts.

On the other side of the spectrum, Boston Globe’s current film critic, Mark Feeney gives most films around two and a half stars. Spider-man: No Way Home? Three stars. Turning Red? Two and a half.

The five star scale seems simple, but it’s shorthand as many systems of evaluation as there are reviewers. One person’s five–star movie could be another’s two––even if they both enjoyed it. The numbers have meaning only when we have context. 

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I give the act of reviewing everything three stars.

Further Reading

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