Monthly Archives: May 2014

Reviewer Identities

This is about one of my favorite topics.  And it’s a longer post, so you may want to grab a cup of coffee or something else to drink before you settle in and start reading.

As I was writing my very first article about the linguistic features of complaints in online reviews, I realized that there were a LOT of other really cool things to explore in this set of 100 TripAdvisor “Rants”! (In fact, I came up with a list of 9-10 potential topics, and so far, I have only gotten around to researching about 3 or 4 of these.)

So for my first follow-up project (after the “complaints” study), I decided to tackle the topic of reviewer identities. I spent an entire summer reading about identities online. What I found was a lot about gender identities, children/adolescent online practices , and a bunch of carefully-controlled laboratory experiments testing various hypotheses. None of this was exactly what I was after. The research that was the closest to what I was interested in (identities in social media) was restricted to only examining the identity information found on users’ profiles.

But I wasn’t interested in user profiles. In fact, when I went back to look at the profile sections of my 100 TripAdvisor reviews, the overwhelming majority of authors had left most of their profile info blank.

Instead, what was interesting to me were the ways in which authors told us something (and very often MANY things) about themselves in the actual texts of their reviews.

I often use the following example to illustrate this phenomenon. This is an excerpt from one of the “Rants” in my original TripAdvisor dataset.

I booked this hotel with the intention of taking my husband to a “fancy” hotel in which we usually cannot afford. At $266 per night I THOUGHT that’s what we would be getting. […] My husband is a soldier in the US Army, and I wanted to take him out for a nice weekend on one of his ONLY weekends off. We ended up spending over $600 on this place and now we are in debt. $30 a night for parking really took a toll on us.

What can we tell about “who this reviewer is” after reading these 3 sentences? I argue that through the author’s language choices, we can determine that the author is: 1) a woman who is married (my husband), 2) to a military spouse (My husband is a soldier in the US Army), and 3) that she has a limited family income (a “fancy” hotel in which we usually cannot afford…now we are in debt).

Whether or not it is the reviewer’s intention to reveal all of these details about herself, this excerpt is a great example of how much information about an author’s identity can appear within just a few sentences of a review. (It also illustrates how much could be missed by looking only at the reviewer’s profile to learn about her identity. Her profile section was mostly unpopulated.)

Some people may argue that we can never really know who the author of this review is.
I mean, maybe she’s not really a financially-constrained Army wife. Maybe she’s some wealthy guy with a trust fund, pretending to be financially-constrained Army wife. Sure, there is always some possibility that this could be the case.

So, who is that “real” person behind the text? Well, with most forms of online communication, we can never be 100% sure. But perhaps that’s not even as important as we think it is. What we end up reading off of texts like these is the authors “constructed identity.” In other words, online (and offline) people use language in ways that both TELL and SHOW us who they are…or who they want us to believe they are.

Ok. So let’s assume that this author really IS the person that she tells us she is. What does she have to gain by telling us all of this personal information in her review? I argue that it is through these linguistic details that the reviewer establishes she is some kind of a ‘real’ person, with economic constraints as well as with legitimate consumer expectations. Most likely, readers like ourselves take this identity information into account (though again, with varying degrees of awareness) as we interpret her evaluation of this particular hotel throughout the rest of her review. This is corroborated by scholars working in other fields, such as information systems research (Forman, Ghose, & Wiesenfeld, 2008) who have found that users of online reviews attend as much the perceived identity of the person writing the review as they do to the actual product information that’s being presented.

[A side note: Some sociolinguists might also point out that, in the above example, the non-standard construction in which we usually cannot afford is an example of a phenomenon known as “hypercorrection.” This is what happens when an individual MISapplies a grammar rule that s/he is not entirely sure about… usually in an effort to sound more formal or educated. Here, in order for this sentence to be grammatically correct, the relative pronoun which should actually not be preceded by the preposition in. Evidently, the author is over-applying the prescriptive “rule” of not ending a sentence with a preposition…and mistakenly adds the preposition in the “correct” position, although this construction actually does not call for any preposition. Hypercorrection like this is often a marker of class anxiety.]

I have developed some of these ideas in more detail in a book chapter about TripAdvisor reviewer identities. This chapter is part of a recently-published volume called “The Language of Social Media: Identity and Community on the Internet”, edited by Philip Seargeant and Caroline Tagg.   It’s a really nice volume with several fascinating contributions. Here’s Philip and Caroline’s opening chapter which frames the main topics covered in the rest of their book.

“What’s the most interesting (or surprising) thing…

about online reviews that you have learned through your research?”

I was asked this question by a woman I met at a yoga retreat a week ago, as we were exchanging our professional life stories during lunch one day. It’s one of those questions that’s like “So what do you plan to do after graduating with a degree in Art History?” You know, the type of question that you probably should have an answer to…and that fact that you don’t have one, and are suddenly on the spot, launches you into a state of momentary panic.

In my defense, I have to say that it’s not easy to boil down 6+ years of academic research into a pithy 30-second sound-bite to be shared with someone you’ve known for barely 10 minutes, as you’re chatting over platefuls of quinoa salad. In fact, I don’t even remember what I said in response to her question. But actually it IS a really good question. So I’ve been thinking about it some more over the last few days. And I believe I’ve come up with a decent-ish answer. Here it is:

Something totally unexpected that I learned as I wrote my book is the strong role that the future plays in our evaluation of past experiences. Even more than explaining how much you’ve loved, enjoyed or appreciated something – and even more than using superlatives like the best, the nicest, or the most delicious – the biggest test of how much you really liked something is this: Would you want to repeat the experience in the future? Ok, so the hotel was “nice and clean”…would you stay there again? Would you go back to that restaurant that you gave 4 stars to? Would you use that recipe to make those same brownies again? In my research, I’ve found that LOTS of reviewers use  references to the future to indicate their ultimate satisfaction with their consumer experiences. So when you see something like the following in the opening lines of a recipe review

We loved this dish. My husband and me and the cat. I’ll definitely make it again.

…you can be certain that the reviewer REALLY liked the recipe! Not only does she include the future reference “will makeagain” but along with that, she adds the stance adverb, definitely, which underscores her commitment to that statement. And, come on, even her cat loved the recipe! (And if you know any cats, you know that her cat certainly didn’t fake liking the dish, just to please her.)

TripAdvisor Reviews in the Mass Media

Sometimes I have trouble sleeping. When insomnia strikes, I have found that watching a few consecutive episodes of a television program that follows the same basic episodic structure can work wonders. As far as genres go, reality shows seem to do the trick more quickly than drama. Having cycled through the offerings on Hulu available for Chopped and Project Runway, I recently found a new program: Hotel Impossible.

This series is about a consultant who visits hotels, and who tells hoteliers concerned about the state of their business what they can do to improve their property. Here is the program’s description from Hulu:

Anthony Melchiorri, a no-nonsense hotel “fixer” tries to help turn struggling hotels around. Each episode features a hotel fighting for its life. Can Anthony Melchiorri revamp the staff and transform the hotel?

What I find fascinating is that point in the episode when Anthony asks the hotel owners “What are customers’ impressions of your hotel?” Without fail, every time, the hotel owners appear be completely oblivious to the existence of online reviews. Anthony then pulls up on his tablet several online reviews of their property, and reads aloud excerpts from TripAdvisor to the hotel owners.

TripAdvisor has been in existence since 2000. Are we supposed to believe that now, 14 years later, there are hotel owners who don’t think about looking at online reviews of their properties to find out about customer’s impressions? Seriously? (Although it’s likely that this speaks more to the hokeyness of so-called “reality” television than to actual hotel management practices… but who knows?)

Actually, in my own research — and in other research I’ve read on the topic – I’ve found that only around 7-13% of reviews are followed up from a post by the business. Obviously, not all businesses have the human resources to respond to reviews. Especially smaller businesses. But surely all businesses are at least aware of online reviews. Because these days, just about everywhere we turn, in just about every corner of the world, we can see signs for TripAdvisor or Yelp.

TripAdvisor sign in Bali, Indonesia
TripAdvisor sign in Bali, Indonesia

Btw, speaking of Hulu, a few weeks ago, I watched an episode of Modern Family, where the Pritchett-Dunphy clan traveled to Australia. TripAdvisor is mentioned by one of the characters in this episode of the popular sitcom, showing just how embedded this phenomenon has become in the fabric of mainstream.

Reviewers Reference Remoteness Rather than Recency

I’ve been invited to participate in a panel called “Language and Mobility: Space, time & social media – Communicating (the) here & now” in June 2014  at the Sociolinguistics Symposium 20  in Jyväskylä, Finland. The title of the talk I’ll be giving is “Right now versus back then: Recency and remoteness as discursive resources in online reviews.”  The basic idea is that many discourse scholars have noticed that a dominant characteristic of social media is its focus on recency, or “now-ness.” In other words, on what we are doing at-this-very-same-moment-when we are posting our status update on Facebook, or as we are tweeting. However, in my ongoing analysis of 1,000 online reviews, I am noticing that review writers are actually even more likely to mention something that took place several years ago than they are to describe what’s happening “right now.” I am still working through my analysis of temporal references, but in a few weeks, I hope to have some ideas about what functions these remote past references serve, and why review writers use them as much as they do.

My First Book

My book, The Discourse of Online Consumer Reviews (Bloomsbury Press), will be published in just a few weeks! It’s been a 2.5 year long process from proposal acceptance to publication.

This is my very first book project, and I have to say that I have been super happy working with Bloomsbury. They have been responsive, helpful, and it seems like they try to make things as easy as possible for their authors.

I am also happy that my book will be part of an awesome series. The other titles in this series – especially those that deal with various types of digital discourse – have been inspiring to me: The Discourse of Blogs and Wikis (Greg Myers), Discourse of Text Messaging (Caroline Tagg) and Discourse of Twitter and Social Media (Michelle Zappavigna).


Starting the TripAdvisor Analysis

Ok, I now had my data: 100 “Rants” from TripAdvisor. What next?

I did what (I am sure) most discourse analysts do. I read through my data. I thought about my data. I studied my data. And then I read, studied, and thought about my data some more. I repeated this process several times. In fact, I became so familiar with my data that, after a while, I could recite entire excerpts verbatim from my 60+ pages of downloaded hotel reviews.

Because my most recent project prior to this one had been about how speakers complain in a F2F professional setting, I thought it might make sense to consider my TripAdvisor “Rant” data from the perspective of complaints. Specifically, I was curious about which of the language features characteristic of spoken complaints, as reported in the research literature, were also applicable to complaints in this specific CMC (computer mediated communication) genre.

What I found was interesting. First of all, although there had been dozens of books and articles published about how people complain in all sorts of languages (from Chinese to IsiXhosa), I could find no studies about how people use languages to complain in online environments. This was around 2008. I also found that, at this point, only 2 scholars had examined online reviews from a linguistic perspective (Pollach and Mackiewicz). So it seemed like I had found a research topic that was worth exploring in greater detail.

My analysis of TripAdvisor complaints turned up the following findings:

1) About 1/3 of reviewers actually included 1 or more positive comments within their primarily negative (1-star) review. Presumably those reviewers wish to offer a balanced perspective, and do not want to come across as being categorically negative.

2) Online complaints tended to co-occur with other speech acts, such as recommendations, advice, and warnings…which is different from findings about F2F complaints. This tells us that the kinds of speech acts that are most likely to co-occur with complaints depends on the larger context in which those complaints occur.

3) Lots of reviewers made explicit reference to their expectations, which are often based on the hotel’s price, brand, or their own pre-travel research. Consumer complaints seem to be closely related to their expectations.

4) Some reviewers recognize that multiple audiences may be reading their reviews online, and take the opportunity to address two audiences within a single review text: other consumers, as well as the owners of the business being reviewed. This is unique to CMC. Before, when we complained (either in person, or in letters written to business), it was difficult – and often impossible – to address multiple audiences simultaneously.

More details about online complaints can be found in my article:
Vasquez, C. (2011). Complaints online: The case of TripAdvisor. Journal of Pragmatics, 43, 1707-1717.

How I Got Started Researching the Language of TripAdvisor Reviews

I’ve been researching the language of online reviews for 6 years now. Prior to that, I had been using TripAdvisor reviews as a useful source of information about hotels whenever I planned to travel.

At some point in late 2008, I began thinking about the potential of TripAdvisor reviews as source of data for discourse analysis. (For those who are unfamiliar with discourse analysis, it’s basically a type of research that explores how people use language – and other symbolic resources – to create specific meanings in a given context. Discourse analysis is the kind of research that I do for my job and, as a professor of Applied Linguistics at a large research university in the Southeast USA, I also get to teach advanced students how to do discourse analysis.)

As I began exploring TripAdvisor’s various site features, my attention was drawn to a section labeled “Rants and Raves,” used by TripAdvisor to showcase the very BEST and the very WORST hotel reviews.

This is what the site looked like in 2010.  “Rants and Raves” is no longer a part of the TripAdvisor site.  So this screen shot is a historical artifact, kind of like a “digital fossil.”
This is what the site looked like in 2010. “Rants and Raves” is no longer a part of the TripAdvisor site. So this screen shot is a historical artifact, kind of like a “digital fossil.”

After reading several reviews in both categories, I quickly realized that the “Rants” were a heck of a lot more interesting than the “Raves.” I mean, I am really glad that all those folks decided to share their good experiences too… but they just don’t make for very interesting copy.

In doing some background reading about online reviews, my initial impressions were corroborated by scholars like Ricci & Wietsma (2006) and Sen & Lerman (2007) , who found that readers do tend to pay more attention to negative reviews. (I happen to have a few ideas of my own about WHY this is, and I mention them in Chapter 5 of my forthcoming book.)

Wanting to learn more, I wrote to TripAdvisor several times, asking them “How do you select which reviews to feature in your ‘Rants and Raves’ section?” But they never responded to my inquiries. I am sure their legal department was busy with other, more pressing matters.

Undeterred, I decided to systematically observe the “Rants and Raves” section for several months. I discovered that there were about 5 or 6 different reviews that would cycle through for about one week, and that you could see them all in just few minutes by hitting “refresh.” The next week, another set of 5 or 6 reviews would be featured. And so on.

So that’s how I started my first collection of TripAdvisor reviews. I decided to focus only on the “Rants” since they included lots of gruesome and graphic details: blood stains, insects, inedible food, tales of truly horrible customer service. Plus linguistically, I found that the “Rants” also included a lot of vivid and interesting language: metaphor, hyperbole, extreme case formulations (e.g., This is the worst hotel I have ever stayed in during my 25 years of travel). I downloaded the 5-6 featured “Rants” each week, until I had a dataset of 100 negative reviews. This process took about 6 months.