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How the Customer Review Changed the World
In the kingdom of the Internet, story is master over argument.
The following is adapted from my book Digital Liturgies: Rediscovering Christian Wisdom in an Online Age.
Of all the web’s achievements, one of its greatest is surely the sheer freedom of access to information it has given to billions of people around the world who would probably otherwise have never come near it. From my home office in south Louisville, Kentucky, I can gaze at ancient treasures of art and writing housed in the most elite museums around the world. In a matter of seconds, I can view a real-time street map of Paris, London, or Johannesburg, exploring side streets as I wander virtually. Research that until very recently was only possible for those with the time and resources to rifle through books and periodicals in physical libraries is now accessible to me almost as fast as I can think of it. How is it possible that a middle-class nobody like me could experience all of this? How can someone with (almost!) no money and no elite connections possess all this knowledge and resource? The answer, of course, is the web. The web has made world travelers, cultured observers, and knowledgeable artisans out of billions of us.
The word for this is democratization. Democratization is literally the process of democracy, or the process by which democracy emerges. When we say that the web has democratized information and experiences, we mean that it has made things that otherwise would be available to the few available to the many. It should be obvious from this that the internet is one of the greatest democratizing forces in world history, and quite possibly the single greatest.
Democratization, however, has some side-effects. In a 2014 essay that later became a book of the same name, the political commentator Tom Nichols described “the death of expertise,” a condition of the internet era in which the free availability of information and the ease with which individuals can express their viewpoint result in an intellectual free-for-all. Nichols writes:
There was once a time when participation in public debate, even in the pages of the local newspaper, required submission of a letter or an article, and that submission had to be written intelligently, pass editorial review, and stand with the author’s name attached. Even then, it was a big deal to get a letter in a major newspaper. Now, anyone can bum rush the comments section of any major publication. Sometimes, that results in a free-for-all that spurs better thinking. Most of the time, however, it means that anyone can post anything they want, under any anonymous cover, and never have to defend their views or get called out for being wrong.
To be sure, the value of “expertise” is often exaggerated by those who have some kind of material interest in being able to refer to themselves as an expert. And a major reason for the weakness of many public institutions and the lack of trust in community leaders has been a pattern of failure and nonresponsibility by those who were appointed “experts.” As Nichols acknowledges, experts can get things wrong, and everyone suffers when wrongness is allowed to go unchallenged simply because of where it comes from.
And yet this brings us full circle to a unique dilemma of the internet age. The radical democratization of everything has not only given billions of ordinary people a very real kind of power and voice; it has flattened the distinctions between one voice and another. In the analog world, society is set up so that while everyone is owed equal justice under the law, not everyone’s insights or voices are considered equally valid or worthy of broadcasting.
The web is, in a very real sense, a credential-erasing environment. When everything and everyone is disembodied, these structural distinctions between expert and non-expert tend to mean very little. What is meaningful are experiences. Online, personal narratives are the truly authoritative knowledge. Online, it doesn’t matter so much who you are, what you’ve accomplished, or how much you know. What matters is your story. What matters is your truth.
To illustrate this, let’s consider what is unquestionably one of the most revolutionary results of the internet age: the customer review. The centrality of the customer review to the online age is impossible Maps application will not only return an establishment’s address, hours, and website URL; it will automatically offer a sampling of their latest Yelp reviews. On Amazon the customer star rating is prominently featured under each product name, and you can easily filter your search results by highest rating. Everything on the web is subject to review, and most search engines and landing sites feature these reviews prominently. From therapists to professors, churches to preschools—online, reputation is inseparable from existence. The very second people know an institution exists, they can know what others say about it.
The online customer review is a very particular kind of thing. It’s almost always written in the first person: “I had this experience at this establishment, and here are my thoughts about it.” It’s typical for online reviews to blend reaction to the product and to the service into one so that it’s not always clear what’s being talked about. Most importantly, customer reviews pass evaluative judg- ments on products, institutions, and even other people that are based foremost on individual experience. Most online reviews use their individual experiences, in many cases only a single experience, to judge the person/product/place, and the experience itself is not open to interpretation, questioning, or pushback. Because it is disembodied like the rest of the internet, the customer review exists absolutely. It can be responded to, it can disbelieved, but it cannot be challenged in a meaningful way. The individual perspective of the reviewer is isolated from all other considerations.
The online review tells a story, and this story, being one of individual experience, is not an argument that can be debated but a kind of self-expression that is un-challengeable. For example, when looking at reviews of a new local restaurant, you might see a variety of comments about the food, service, or price. But most of these comments will not be worded like scientifically objective evaluations about how well-seasoned the entrees are, or how professionally trained the staff seems, or how the price compares to competitors. Instead, you will see reviews along the lines of, “My steak was cooked well,” “The waiters seemed rude and distracted and barely checked on us,” or, “The prices are terrible and not worth it.” Those comments are more effective in convincing you of something, because they are not just opinions; they are stories. And in the online world, your story is your truth.
Of course, this isn’t just an internet thing. When Oprah Winfrey said that “speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have,” she wasn’t just thinking about the disembodied web. She was talking about expressive individualism, the notion that being true to oneself, constantly actualizing one’s inner desires, perspectives, and feelings, is the epitome of the good life. Nobody needs a smartphone or Twitter account to live according to expressive individualism. It is the ambient worldview of Western culture—the plot to every Disney film, the subtext to every hit song, and the foundation of much of our social and political movements. There’s nothing exclusively online about it.
And the web is uniquely designed to cultivate expressive individualism in us. It’s not just that the internet features millions of articles, influencers, and podcasts that preach expressive individualism directly to our hearts. It’s that the form of the internet, the very nature of it, serves the centering of the self. Because the web is a radically democratized medium, it is constantly presenting this flattened way of thinking about the world as the desirable norm.
Responding to a person’s story with an argument is, in the world of the web, a fundamental category error. Arguments belong to the world of expertise; stories belong to the world of democratization.