A couple of weeks ago someone alerted me to a recent episode of South Park, where the show’s characters discover – and become obsessed with – Yelp. Presented in the program’s characteristic crude and scatological humorous style, the episode satirizes the ways in which the online review dynamic may create a cycle of tension and hostility between consumers and business owners.
Fiction writer Brett Easton Ellis references this particular episode of South Park in his latest essay, “Living in the Cult of Likeability.” Though his essay tackles the broader issues of reputation management and the construction of relational capital in social media, one of the threads running throughout the essay has to do with the alleged democratization of expertise afforded by online review sites, such as Yelp. Ellis writes:
The idea that everyone thinks that they’re specialists with voices that deserve to be heard has actually made everyone’s voice less meaningful. All we’re doing is setting ourselves up to be sold to – to be branded, targeted, and data-mined.
Hmmmm…that’s certainly a paradox that’s worth pondering further.
Ellis continues by discussing his own authorial experiences with critics (“I was liked as often as I was disliked and that was OK because I didn’t get emotionally involved.”), and complains that the opportunity for more and more of us to become “critics” thanks to online review venues has actually created a situation where there are fewer – rather than more – dissenting voices. Because no one wants to come across as a “hater” (which, according to Ellis, is why we’re always “liking” stuff on Facebook…and why we hope that others will reciprocate by “liking” our posts too.)
Where reviews are concerned, Ellis sort of has a point. Several studies have found a consistent trend across all of the review sites: there are always more positive ratings than negative ones. For instance, even the Amazon reviews for Ellis’s HUGELY controversial novel, American Psycho, (which has an overall rating of 3.7) appear as the standard “J-shaped” distribution: with mostly 5- and 4-star reviews, followed by 1-star reviews, followed by 3- and 2-star reviews.
Ellis provides many interesting insights about the reputation economy in this piece. However, I question his nostalgia for the past – the alleged good-old-days before social media, back when “People could have differing opinions and discuss them rationally.” While it’s true that social media may be exacerbating certain cultural tendencies…my guess is that those cultural tendencies were well-established long before social media came on the scene.