“You’re wrong but I can’t be bothered to tell you why”

This post builds on my previous post, I guess, in the sense that the disconnection between people online often causes people to kill their mental ‘tact’ process and just go full-knee-jerk mode. I experienced this today when I received an update from Amazon saying that someone had posted a reply to my review of a product that I wrote. Rather surprisingly, and perhaps rather patronisingly, the reviewer stated that we “must have been using a different product”, that he “couldn’t be bothered to respond to my individual points” and that “people should ignore my review” (paraphrases).

To boot, my 800-word review, which I consider to be fair (even if unfavourable) has so far attracted 2 votes, both of which say that my review is ‘unhelpful’. The fact that my review is neatly itemised, summarised and moderately lengthy, seems to undermine those votes. Nevermind, democracy is democracy – even if it is blind. What’s important is the free-reign (which I respect, in principle) of people vote for the things they personally consider helpful or useful. Unfortunately, however, this can have negative results.

Digging

When I poked around the other reviews for the product (of which >15% were less than 4 stars), I found a pattern: there were three or four users, all of which have given the product 5 star reviews, going around commenting on other people’s reviews. Furthermore, rather than being polite and asking people why they had experiences, they were quite rude – even calling reviewers names. After all, the reviews left on Amazon are (usually) not written by professionals – they are average human beings who have had an experience with the product. Most of the time, they either like or they don’t, and most people appreciate it when reviewers describe their own personal experience with the product. What’s weird is when people try to contradict you, i.e. “clearly you’re wrong as that’s not the experience I had”. That doesn’t mean anything. If I say “I don’t like the taste of chocolate” and you say “well I do” then you haven’t successfully rebutted my argument as there was no argument in the first place.

Another interesting point that has come out is where the commenter, i.e., not the original poster, starts to talk about how the product compares to other products on the market. “Oh, but it’s cheaper than product X” or “oh, it has a feature that product Y doesn’t have”. Again, this is a personal review. If you’re seriously considering buying an expensive product then you read many professional reviews for it. In these reviews, typically, the professional reviewer will compare it to other products. If I post a personal review saying “this product had poor performance” and then you tell me that “it has better performance than product Z” – you have not successfully rebutted me. Once again, there is no argument to rebut – it is a personal opinion. I am reviewing product A and only product A – if I haven’t experienced Products X, Y, or Z, I cannot describe my experience with them.

Finally, there’s this rather sad “clique” effect. In the online community, we call them “fanboys” – the people who love a product, game, band, service, franchise, or brand so much that they cannot stand for any criticism of it. Typical examples include Star Wars, Apple, and Justin Bieber; say something negative about any of these things in certain areas and you will feel the flames of fanboys. Fanboys will just contradict you – much like someone defending their religion or mother; it’s just automatic, knee-jerk emotion. Say something negative and they won’t even try to understand your reasons they’ll just reply – completely ignoring your points; the commenter who replied to my review demonstrated this with his comment about “not responding to individual points”.

Insidious

Unfortunately, this behaviour is insidious. When you first land on a product on Amazon, you’re created by the cheery product image, price, details and description. You then scroll down to read the reviews. Amazon, rather nicely, is honest about the reviews it receives and counts them up depending on their star rating and displays them in a tidy little box with refinement links. This is great – you often find that the best reviews (i.e., the most even-handed) are two and four star reviews as these tend to be, in my experience, people who are discerning and thoughtful. One star reviews tend to be from people who had some totally unrelated experience – like the delivery was late, or they cut themselves on the bubblewrap. Five star reviews tend to be from people who are scarcely qualified to review the product as their eyes were misty from the tears of joy of finally owning their very own product A.

When you view these reviews they tend to be sorted by how ‘useful’ people think they are and, like the M25, we circle back to where we started. I consider my review to be helpful – alas, I suspect, fanboys have gone and voted it down, which means that it will appear lower in the rankings. Indeed, when you visit the reviews section of the product – the only ones listed on the main page are 5 stars. This, I believe, is because when people see the question “was this review helpful?” they actually see “do you agree with this review?” Imagine a website where your mum was being reviewed and people were putting her down, talking about her weight and that scraggily tooth she has, etc., and then you saw a link that says “do you agree with this opinion of your mum?” – what would you do? Your instinct would be to hit the “no” button and hope that no one reads it.

Of course, that review of your mum, might be even-handed. “Oh,” the reviewer writes, “she looked great when fully dressed but once the dress came off…” and so forth. It might even be accurate. However, the question you saw when you clicked ‘no’ was “do you agree?” This, of course, is not the purpose of the question. Unfortunately, then, this is the problem. People are free to read all the reviews (so long as Amazon hasn’t removed them) and people can – and should – dig around for as much information as possible. The problem is that people don’t do that. They see what they want to see. If they see smiling faces in adverts, grinning celebrities and a bunch of 5 star reviews from “average users” then they’re going to buy the product … and they might be disappointed.

Summary

I don’t disagree with online democracy, I think it’s great. I also don’t disagree with people disagreeing with me. The thing I disagree with is people who leave odious comments attached to people’s reviews, calling them names and failing to even respond to their points. Democracy isn’t perfect and one negative result is behaviour like this – people who, you would hope, wouldn’t have the guts to say this sort of stuff to you to your face. The type of people who, I suspect, would realise what they’re saying is irrelevant if they just bothered to think about and break away from the knee-jerk reaction they are so accustomed to.

It’s just a shame. Like the Tory party in the UK, democracy has spoken (well, not really – bloody coalitions) and we have to respect it. It’s worth protecting even if it results in such awful behaviour.

Anonymity on the Internet

I’ve been thinking about anonymity a lot recently. I don’t have any media outlets to cite specifically but the whole “Twitter and Facebook helped organise the riots” hyper-reaction caused a number of commentators to become apoplectic with knee-jerk… -iness. “Back in my day,” I assume they spluttered as their calf muscles gave-way from search a violent reaction, “we didn’t have Twitbook and Facetweet – so riots couldn’t have been organised so blasted quickly!”

Indeed.

Ludicrousness aside, social media (Twitter especially) can be used under a cloak of anonymity – after all, there’s no requirement that you give your real identity (though I believe Facebook and Google+ are taking steps to make this the case) and you’re free to assume whatever persona and moniker you wish. Some of the best Twitter accounts are satirical ones, mocking (kindly) an exaggerated version of a celebrity. You might not know who the real person is, tapping away at their smartphone with witty comments on their way to work, but it doesn’t matter – it’s the content that really matters.

Lucky

We’re really quite lucky internet protocols developed the way they did – open and free, allowing data to move almost unhindered between destinations. Secure protocols – the good ones – even prevent middlemen from gaining access to your data. You can be having a conversation with someone on the other side of the world about some insalubrious fetish you have (which I know you have) and no one could know. You can even stream video, audio and cash their way and people wouldn’t know (unless they really started to dig).

Anonymity on the internet allows us to reinvent ourselves as many times as we like. A famous example is a game like World of Warcraft: be an elf, be an orc; be a male, be a female; be green, be blue; be whatever you like – it doesn’t matter. All that really matters is that you play by the rules. Those rules are set by whoever’s server you’re on. You could call it anarchy, but that would seem to put pejorative slant on it – like calling it ‘chaotic’ or ‘disorganised’, when in fact the opposite is true. Things only seem chaotic when you don’t understand the rules. That perky, green elf you fancy might be Bob, your 50-something bank manager.

Unlucky

Of course, there are drawbacks. Hit-and-run personal attacks, fraud and theft all occur regularly. Furthermore, anonymity is used by those to commit serious crimes such as distributing child pornography or laundering money; things that no moral person can abide. While we might allow for some trolling on forums and stealing of swords in Warcraft as compromise, we certainly don’t allow for paedophiles and well-organised criminals and this is where we welcome intervention by the police, ISPs and other tech firms.

Unfortunately, to bring the topic round again, we are left in this grey area: between the pure, “white” benefits of anonymity, and it’s murky “black” drawbacks, sullying its name. My opinion? I think anonymity is a wonderful thing. As I said, I think it allows for genuine discussion and judging people on their content rather than appearance. So often, we hear of doing this in real life: judging people by what they do and not how they appear (hey, MLK’s “I have a dream” speech is based on this wonderful idea) – so why is this idea, for some, so difficult to grasp when it is actually applied to a medium that genuinely allows this?

Mr Whatshisface

Unless you live in a prison or small town, most people you pass in the street are going to be anonymous to you. They’re real individuals but you have no idea who they are. Most of us are happy to keep it that way unless we want something from them. The same is true online: except it is taken to the extreme – unlike real life, online anonymity allows to not only hide-in-plain-sight and not be seen but it also allows you to adopt a new identity with only your imagination as a limiting factor.

Were I, a bulky, hairy, young man, attempt to, say, impersonate a female supermodel in person, I would fail horribly – online, perhaps I would be more successful. This – the ability to create new identity or simply hide – is incredibly liberating, especially to the meek. Online, the shy do not have to worry about making eye-contact with people, being visually impressive or even quick-witted. They are given the space and time to be considerate; time to refine their thoughts and actions, and present themselves in the best of light.

Furthermore, people who face genuine intimidation or physical danger in person are free on the internet. Abused women can hide from dangerous ex-partners; freedom fighters can organise themselves so long as they have a mobile phone; teenagers are free to pursue their interests, without worrying what their peers will think of them. If you end anonymity on the internet – if you create Cold War checkpoints on the gateways to the internet then you are slamming the door in the faces of so many people.

Conclusion

Anonymity online is such a powerful tool that it is actually baffling that we still have it – but it is such a precious thing. I have this blog, where I am free to write as myself and attribute my thoughts and feeling to my name, but I also have an anonymous blog, kept under a pseudonym, where I am free to simply express myself however I feel and talk about whomever I want in whatever manner I choose. Of course, I run the risk of being found out – but like all glorious things, it’s worth the cost.

Anonymity is liberating: you are free to act how you wish, to a reasonable limit, and it epitomises the libertarian idiom of having the right to be free, so long as you do not infringe other’s freedom. Let us be rational when we are faced by threats to our liberty: let us handle them with cool heads and unjerked knees. When one abuses a freedom, they must be punished swiftly and sternly – you do not punish them by removing other people’s right to that freedom; what could that possibly achieve?