Review etiquette

Review: a bear sticking out his tongue

‘The review’ has become a pervasive part of our daily lives, and there’s more etiquette involved than you might think. So, let’s discuss reviews.

Some basics

Before diving into some of my thoughts on the subject, some basic terminology. ‘Review’ covers a wide range of things. I have a whole review category on this blog, which contains long form comments on books, movies, and video games. But a Goodreads star rating is also a form of review, as are the small comments you can leave there. At least, I think so.

Of course, it doesn’t stop there. Reviews are everywhere. You visit a webshop, and you might be pestered with a popup to review your experience. And once you’ve bought a product and it’s delivered to you, the webshop will email you to review that product.

On the consumer side, reviews are ever-present. The help us separate the good products and services from the bad. From the best laptops, to the best restaurants, to the best healthcare facilities. Although, separating fact from fiction is an increasingly fraught proposition.

Fake reviews

The idea behind reviews is, that we rate products and experiences fairly, and then we can easily see which things are the best. If a hotel has an average 4.7 out of 5, with ten thousand ratings, you’re probably in for a good stay, right?

Well…

The problem is that the hotel has a financial motive to mess with this system. If they get the highest rating, they’ll get the most customers, and can probably raise their prices. Same for restaurants and stores. Video games and movies will attract a larger audience if they get high ratings. So, there is a reward for gaming the system.

Obviously, skullduggery abounds. Fake accounts are always a thing. If the hotel in the example above created a bunch of fake accounts and created 9,000 of the hotel ratings themselves… well. At my day job, I used to manage a user account system, which were used — among other things — to review car mechanics. One time I found a dozen accounts with the same email address from a garage company, used to post ratings. And that was just the most transparent fraud.

A more sophisticated approach is to groom your audience. Companies can entice their customers to leave positive reviews. Or play the media to shine a positive spotlight on their product. Video game companies are horrible in this, and play games media like a fiddle. They blackball anybody that doesn’t give their games a good review, and pay to get good reviews. And since independent video game media barely exist, the system is pretty broken.

Review bombs

And it gets worse. Companies have gone a step further in their attempts to game the system.

Many try to make video game series a part of the identity of their consumers. Players more and more see certain games as an extension of who they are, not just entertainment. Which means that a bad review about a game, is seen as a bad review about who they are. This has led to online mobs attacking people for bad reviews.

At the bottom of this particular barrel are the mobs that deliberately flood a game or movie with bad reviews because it offends their identity. The so-called ‘review bomb’. It goes so far that fans review other games because they overshadows a game they identify with. Such as Horizon Forbidden West fans bombing Elden Ring.

Or, it happens simply because a game or movie doesn’t cater to exactly what some fans want. I’ve ranted before about how a movie like Captain Marvel got bad reviews simply because it has a female lead. Yeah, movies and games get attacked by hate mobs, and reading why is often horrible. Reviews have become a tool in the ongoing culture war, with the Horizon Forbidden West being bombed by homophobes. And video games sit by the sidelines, gleefully raking in the cash.

Etiquette

So, writing a review is not without risk, and it can get very nasty. Hell, even I have received hate mail about some of my reviews, and I don’t consider myself influential at all.

However, that does beg the question: what makes a review fair? And when is it okay to be angry about it?

Well, there are two sides to this. One one side are ‘the algorithms’. Facebook famously knows you better than your closest friends after seventy likes. That means, that if we all feed our honest likes of books into an algorithm, that algorithm could predict how well we like books we haven’t read based on others we rated. That’s how Netflix works for their shows, and Amazon, and Google, and all social media. This turns problematic when the creators of the algorithm start to sell higher rankings as advertising (Amazon and Google, for example), but well, the theory is sound.

The other side, is one of taste and quality. I might not like certain books, but they can still be well written. I’m not a romance fan, and if I read a romance novel and don’t like it but it’s brilliantly written, should I give it a 1 star rating or a 5 star rating?

If enough people give low ratings because it’s not for them, a novel could end up with a bad rep, when it might be the best of its genre. And that’s not even taking review bombing and political agendas into account. The best novels often offend or push very specific emotional buttons, which means half of the people love them, while the other half hates them. The result on Goodreads would be 3 star rating, for a book that might be the best thing you ever read — or the worst one.

So, on the one hand, you want a review to take taste into account, to feed the algorithm, but on the other, you want reviews to separate quality from personal taste. And you can’t achieve both simultaneously.

My take

Most people that leave a review on Goodreads, or for apps, or about movies, won’t even think about this nuance. They will often fall in the ‘taste review’ camp, simply because separating quality from taste requires you to understand the mechanics of what you’re reviewing. And while most people think they could write a good story, they rarely can. That’s why critic is a profession, not just a hobby.

I’ve seen authors complain about reviews where the reviewer wrote ‘not for me’ and gave them a low rating. And I get that. You might only get a few hundred ratings on Goodreads, and maybe a dozen reviews. If a few of those are low and variations of ‘not for me’, then that can tank your book. However, can you blame the reviewers?

At the core, it’s sites like GoodReads, MetaCritic, and all its siblings that simply aggregate unfiltered ratings and reviews. They pretend all reviews are equal, when they are not. Of course, if you start to filter them, that costs money because you can’t automate that, and it makes it much harder to have a lot of reviewed content. It’s too expensive. But, unfiltered reviews… Really, these companies are shooting themselves in the foot. I barely look at GoodReads ratings and reviews when picking books to read, because the results are untrustworthy. The same thing for video games: reading online reviews doesn’t tell you much more than how much money publishers poured into their campaigns, not about the quality of their product.

When I write my own reviews, I try to be conscious of this more and more. I try to look at the things I review from different angles. I always add my reasoning for not liking certain works, but these days, I try to add information about what type of person might like something even when I don’t. And I’ve stopped putting ratings on Goodreads.

Conclusion

I hope this post gives you something to think about. You’re probably prompted for reviews daily. Give them some thought before giving a low or high rating.

What will happen with that review? Are you reviewing on its merits, or on your tastes? And does that matter in that specific case?

Ask yourself these questions. Because the answers matter to the people on the receiving end.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy author/blogger from the Netherlands