From Internet Rules!…to Bad Hombres?

A couple weeks ago, I attended the annual conference of the Association of Internet Researchers (AOIR) in Berlin.  This conference has been held every year since 2000, and it’s dedicated to exploring all things internet-related = it’s impressively multidisciplinary.   This year’s theme was “Internet Rules!”  (polysemously referencing ideas related to who rules the internet?” as well as “what are the rules of the internet?”).  I attended 4 days of mind-blowingly good presentations, on topics ranging from humorous memes, to peer economy platforms and post-colonial computing, to what happens in our digital afterlives, to big-data visualizations.

I participated in a panel on “Sociolinguistic perspectives on everyday digital practices,” where my colleagues talked about topics such as: academics’ stances on digital writing practices (David Barton), the role of hashtags in Hong Kong’s umbrella movement (Carmen Lee), and the implications of surveillance for our digital interactions (Rodney Jones).  In my own talk, I used the conference theme as a point of departure, in exploring various types of “rule-breaking” in the Amazon review space – as well as related metadiscourse(s).

Returning from Berlin, I bounced right back into the classroom, and in my UG “Language & Society” course, one of our readings this week was Jane Hill’s “Language, Race and White Public Space.”  (I make it a point to work some discussion of “mock Spanish” into any Sociolinguistics course that I teach…but this is the first time I’m teaching this content to undergraduates.)  More than half of the students seemed to understand how covert racism operates in the examples that Jane Hill presents…but I could tell that a few students still weren’t completely convinced, as they tried to argue for alternative interpretations of the “mock Spanish” examples discussed (e.g., “they’re just having fun,” ” lighthearted Spanish practice,” “I wouldn’t take it so seriously” …)

And then presidential debate #3 happened.  Any lingering doubts about the reality of mock Spanish were instantly erased: the following day, my students came to class and ALL they wanted to talk about was Trump’s use of “bad hombres”! As my colleague, Adam Schwartz, explains so beautifully in this post, “bad hombres” may be the most emblematic example of mock Spanish that we have seen to date.  And as it continues to generate more memes and become more embedded in our online collective consciousness, I know I’ll be using this example in my own teaching for many years to come.

Viewing social media data from a qualitative perspective

When it comes to mining social media for information, I’ve observed that it’s quite unusual for folks from the business world to consider alternatives to “big data” approaches.   So I was delighted to see that, in this recent article from the Harvard Business Review, the authors argue that qualitative approaches to social media listening can generate new insights for companies.

This resonates with what I’ve been saying for the last couple of years.  When I’ve had opportunities to speak to, or work with, companies in the travel industry for example, I have been advocating a “small data” approach to the analysis of user-generated online reviews.  There is no question that  big data approaches can be useful in revealing large, general patterns of consumer behavior.  However, like the authors of this HBR article, I have found that close, careful, qualitative text analysis can yield very different types of contextually-relevant insights into consumer experience and sentiment.

Ratings and Reviews…not the same thing.

It’s been years since I’ve watched the film version of the Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy, and the only scene I remember is the one in which a group of humans ask a supercomputer to provide the answer to the “ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.”   After much computational activity, the supercomputer responds: “42.”  I think that this is a brilliant illustration of the limits of quantification.  We want to believe in the importance of numbers and statistics, but we often fail to consider how those numbers are generated, what they actually represent, and how they might be variably interpreted.  And let’s face it, reducing complex realities into a single number is… well, pretty reductive.

David Streitfield´s article “Online Reviews? Researchers Give Them a Low Rating “ takes the perspective that online reviews aren’t very useful, but actually, his article concentrates far more on the related phenomenon of ratings, rather than reviews. “Rating” refers to a numeric score assigned from a given scale, such as 1-5 or 1-10.   In the context of Yelp or Amazon, this number is used to  quantify a subjective evaluation of experience. “Reviews” in contrast, refers to the more qualitative, narrative texts, which are also used to evaluate a subjective experience.  Obviously, ratings are less informative than reviews, because assigning a numeric score to a multifaceted experience such as dining in a restaurant or reading a novel inevitably means reducing a whole LOT of different kinds of information and opinions into a single integer.

Many reviewers are fully aware of the challenges involved in assigning a single numeric score to a multidimensional consumer experience.  As I described in my book,  The Discourse of Online Reviews, some reviewers even go so far as to explain the logic and calculations behind their ratings.   Here’s one of my favorite examples from a  Netflix review of the film, Shallow Hal:

I give it a bunch of stars for being funny, I take away a bunch of stars for being hypocritical, I give it some more stars for trying to deliver a good message, and then take away a few stars for it continuing to be hypocritical.  In the end it averages out to 3 stars.

Furthermore, sites like Amazon and Yelp often provide an composite star rating for each product or service, which represents the average of ALL of the ratings assigned by multiple individuals.  How meaningful are these composite ratings?  Especially when it comes to “experience goods,”  such as novels or movies, where people’s tastes vary so widely?  On a related note, even though I’ve been studying hotel reviews on  Tripadvisor for nearly a decade now, I still can’t tell you how much of a difference there is between a hotel with a rating of 4.6 and a hotel with a rating of 4.7.

So while  I wholeheartedly agree with many of the points made in Streitfield´s article, in order to more accurately reflect his content, the linguist in me wants to change his title to “Online Ratings? Researchers Give them Unfavorable Reviews.

Too much English spoken!

…or “parle trop Anglais!” to be more precise.  This excerpt comes from a tourist’s review of a Belgian hotel, posted on bookings.com, as reported in a recent article by Patrick Goethals about multilingual online reviews.

This study looked at all mentions of language in 11,000+ reviews of Belgian hotels (in cities located in the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium: Antwerp, Bruges, and Ghent ).

It’s important to pause for a moment here to point out that Belgium is officially multilingual, with three official languages (Dutch, French & German).  Each language is roughly associated with a particular region of the country, as illustrated on this map:

Belgium_Language Map

 

In this study, hotel reviews written by tourists in 3 languages — French, German, and Spanish — were analyzed in order to find out how the 3 different groups of tourists discussed their language experiences in the hotels where they stayed.

The researcher found that, of the 3 groups, the German reviewers commented the least often on language-related issues.  They didn’t seem to care too much about who spoke which language(s) in the Belgian hotels they stayed at.  In contrast, the Spanish reviewers commented the most frequently on language related issues: nearly 8 percent of the 2,500 Spanish-language reviews made some mention of language.  And interestingly, when they did, their comments tended — for the most part — to be pretty positive, as in the following  example:

El personal encantador, a pesar de no ablar español, cosa que queda discuplada por su simpatia y amabilidad.  (Charming personnel, although they did not speak Spanish, which we can forgive them for, thanks to their friendliness and kindness).

Overall, the French reviewers commented on language-related issues just slightly less than the Spanish.  However, when they did, they tended to be the most critical in their language related judgments, as can be seen in complaints like the following:

Rien en francais lamentable!  (Nothing in French — pitiful!)

Obviously the role of context is key here.  For the French reviewers, there seems to be an assumption that since Belgium is a multilingual country — and since French is one of Belgium’s three official languages — staff in Belgian hotels should be fluent in French…even though ALL of the hotels reviewed happened to be located in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium.

It would be interesting to replicate this study with the same 3 language groups in other European (or international) contexts, where none of their languages have an official status. For instance, would the French be as likely to comment on language-related issues when traveling to, say, Turkey, or Poland, … or Japan?

This is an interesting study which uses to travel reviews to tap into peoples’ language attitudes.  It also reveals a tension between multilingualism at the level of national policy on the one hand, and the interactions between language beliefs and the on-the-ground realities of actual language use as they occur in the context of travel, tourism, and hospitality, on the other.

Woman Banned from Yelp! for Breaking Online Community Norms

One of the highlights from this semester has been my Lang & Tech students’ contributions to what I call “Digital Show & Tell.”  Each class session, a different student brings in some sample of internet discourse and explains to us what they find interesting about it.  We’ve talked about copypasta, Tumblr chats, CoffeeDad, Redditt’s photoshop battles, confessions on scarymommy.com, and many other weird, wonderful, creative – and very often, humorous – internet phenomena.

Today’s RDM guest blogger, Judith Bridges, chose to focus on one particular Yelp reviewer, who has been appearing on different social media sites for her uniquely irreverent approach to reviewing.

Judith writes:

My digital show-and-tell is the case of Nathalie Walker who wrote reviews of businesses on Yelp! where she went on dates, basing the review content exclusively on how the date went. If the date was a disaster, that business got 1 star. When the date resulted in a four-and-a-half-year-long relationship, that business got 5 stars.

Nathalie has Instagram  and Twitter accounts, where she posted screen-shots of her disorderly Yelp! reviews to share them with her friends. Below is an image she posted on Instagram of her first four date reviews on Yelp!:

Instagram YelpReviews

 

Soon after, she was notified by a Yelp Support employee named Pam that her behavior disobeyed Yelp’s Content Guidelines. Nathalie used this opportunity to ask Pam out on a date. Nathalie continued to share screenshots of her email dialogue with Pam on social media. Her multimodal communication practices, i.e. sharing screenshots on Instagram and Twitter of her unruly behavior on Yelp, eventually helped her date reviews go viral after Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, Yahoo, Self and other websites featured her hilarious story. She even got positive tweets from ex-boyfriends —  as well as the writer of the song alluded to in the review above.

I believe this example is notable because it shows how in online spaces, there are norms of communication, established by the online community, which regulate the discourse in that particular space. As Kiesler, Kraut, Resnick, and Kittur (2011) point out, “normative behaviors may be codified and articulated or may be left implicit, and they may be contested by some members at times, but most of the time, people will agree about behaviors that are acceptable, and those that are not” (p. 3). Rules for online communication can either be developed, negotiated and co-constructed by  users, or they can be set a priori by  moderators who regulate people’s communicative behavior (Kytölä & Westinen, 2015). When someone disobeys the set conventions in a particular online space, this behavior stands out. In some cases it can be considered trolling, but in  the case of Natalie W, her  unique approach to review writing makes her texts comical. For regulated sites like Yelp!, texts that challenge community norms are removed, but that didn’t stop Natalie W. from continuing the comedy show on other platforms, and this is likely what helped her story go viral.

Blommaert and Varis (2014) explain that virality comes from the re-entextualizations of existing signs, or “meaningful communicative operations that demand different levels of agency and creativity of the user” (p. 16). Although Blommeart and Varis (2014) focus on memes, I would argue that what Natalie W. has done on Yelp! (and sharing the screenshots on other social media) performs a similar action of taking something recognizable, giving it a new and unique twist , and re-contextualizing it across various social media sites.

It’s worth noting that Natalie W. was aware of the impact negative Yelp! reviews can have on a business, especially a small one. This is why she only left these reviews for only large companies who wouldn’t be hurt by a 1-star review, such as a football stadium or Times Square. “If someone decides not to attend Yale University because of a one-star review some bizarre Internet girl wrote on Yelp!, that person probably should not be attending Yale University,” she said.

References

Barnes, Z. (2016, Jan 11). “This woman got banned from Yelp for her hilarious date reviews.” Self.com Retrieved from http://www.self.com/trending/2016/01/this-woman-got-banned-from-yelp-for-her-hilarious-date-reviews/

Kiesler, S., Kraut, R., Resnick, P., & Kittur, A. (2011). “Regulating Behavior in Online Communities.” In R. Kraut & P. Resnick (Eds.) Building Successful Online Communities: Evidence-Based Social Design (pp. 125-178) Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Kytölä, S., & Westinen, E. (2015). “I be da reel gansta”—A Finnish footballer’s twitter writing and metapragmatic evaluations of authenticity. Discourse, Context & Media, 8(1), 6-19.

McNeal, S. (2016, Jan 10). “Woman gets kicked off Yelp after posting a bunch of reviews of her dates.” Buzzfeed.com. Retrieved from http://www.buzzfeed.com/stephaniemcneal/yelp-date-reviews#.hsZwdVEK5

Varis, P., & Blommaert, J. (2014). Conviviality and collectives on social media: Virality, memes and new social structures. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, 108, 1-21.

A Day in the Life… What our Contemporary Digital Practices Look Like

I am teaching “Language & Technology” this semester.  One of the first assignments – drawing on David Barton’s suggestions for writing ‘techno-linguistic biographies’ – asks students to write a journal-style entry in response to the following prompt: “Thinking of yesterday, what digital technologies did you first deal with when you woke up, and how did this continue during the day?  Walk me through your engagement with different online media throughout the day, in a chronological fashion.”

Reading my students’ responses, I am equally impressed by their talent for writing (by this, I mean that each and every response is compelling in its own way), as well with several of the trends that I’m seeing.  I’ve chosen to write about these trends using the collective pronoun ‘we,’ because I believe that many of us go about our daily existence in a similarly mediated (and mediatized) fashion.

So here we go.  This is a composite snapshot of what our typical daily engagement with technology looks like.

90% of us (18/20) are awakened by our phones, which we reach for and “check” for notifications (email, text) and then “scroll” through social media apps.  Several of us do this while we are still in bed, and before we have even had our morning coffee.  The adverbials that appear alongside our descriptions of this activity include instantly, consistently, automatically, first thing, every morning, still half-asleep, and with eyes half-open.

Facebook is still the most frequently mentioned type of social media.  Many of us (8/10) mention “checking Facebook,” yet none of us really conveys a very strong sense of enthusiasm about Facebook  (…as in “I even checked FB” x2).  For those of us who listed our “typical” daily sequence of checking social media accounts, Facebook is the very last one we check. It seems like our growing dissatisfaction with Facebook has to do with a sense that it has been colonized by commercial interests.  As one of us points out “…recently, Facebook has been getting filled with more and more advertisements, viral videos and click bait.”

Checking Facebook almost feels like an obligatory ritual, or a chore.  Only one of us mentions posting a status update.  A handful of us post birthday wishes we have been notified about, and several of us “like” something that’s been posted by someone else.  One of us works in place that posts daily work updates on FB;  one of us has an academic advisor who uses FB as primary mode of communication.

In contrast, Instagram is the social media app we tend to use primarily to communicate with family and friends (for 7/20 of us, anyway), followed by Snapchat (5/20).  Only 20% of us are looking at Twitter today – including one of us who identifies Twitter as the only form of social media used.

Only two of us post photos on social media.  In both cases they are selfies.

Only two of us mention looking at online reviews (Rotten Tomatoes, Amazon).

There are just a few of us (4/20) who use What’s App, but others of us mention using other chat programs.  Only one of us mentions using Skype, and it’s to talk to someone who’s in another country.  Several of us, of course, still use our phone to call people.

Lots of us multitask, like having multiple tabs open at once – the highest number reported is 16.    Also we often interrupt other activities we are engaged in, e.g.: “In the time it’s taken me to write this full paragraph, I’ve stopped to check my email and Facebook twice each, and checked Snapchat on my phone once.”  Or taking breaks during reading (between paragraphs) to see what the family group is chatting about on What’s App.

ALL of us use email and text messages.   Most of us refer to having more than one email account: three seems to be the average.  The majority of us refer to “checking” email and texting on multiple occasions throughout the day.

Many of us use apps for informational purposes, like weather reports, traffic updates, and news.  And to do business (shop, pay bills, do banking).

All of us use technology on a daily basis for educational purposes (Canvas, Google to look stuff up, Google translate, GoogleCalendar and Dropbox). Many of us use technology  for entertainment (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu).  Lots of us use technologies to listen to music at various points throughout the day (often in our cars, or while working out): Spotify, Pandora, Rhapsody, itunes, Youtube.  And the majority of us mentions Youtube – not only for music, but for watching other kinds of videos as well.

Only 3 of us mention our favorite game, which we play regularly.

Social media, for many of us, is an important tool for staying connected with our families and friends (and, as one of us puts it, SM enables us “to feel like [we’re] not alone in cyberspace”). At the same time, several of us admit that we use these platforms as a way to “eat up time” “kill time” and “pass the time.”  We are, it turns out, doing a lot of “checking” “scrolling” and “clicking” in our daily lives.

Finally, about 25% of us refer to deliberately restricting or limiting our use of digital media at different points in our day.

Author Brett Easton Ellis (and the characters of South Park) take on our “rate and review” culture

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.

South Park

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. Am Psycho 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.

To respond or not…What should businesses do about online reviews?

Last week I spoke with Sparksheet, a content/media/marketing blog, about my research on online reviews.  Among other things, I discussed some factors businesses should keep in mind as they develop a strategy for how to respond to reviews.  Coincidentally, the NY Times just ran a story about this very topic as well.  The main take-aways?

  • Businesses really can turn popular sentiment around by engaging with online reviews/ers in a variety of constructive ways.
  • Completely ignoring online reviews can eventually hurt a business.
  • Canned responses are usually not very effective.  To the extent that it’s possible, responses should be personalized.
  • Getting into a public argument online with a reviewer is usually not the best approach. (But see my earlier posts on “Facebook Reviews” and “People Hate them on Yelp” for some interesting counterexamples.)
  • Reviews and ratings can be powerful marketing tools. Buzzword of the day: it’s all about “relational capital.”

Time references in online reviews

Next month, the “Language and New Media” special interest group  of the British Association of Applied Linguistics will be discussing my forthcoming Discourse, Context & Media article about time references in online reviews.  The focus of my research was on how online reviewers make a lot more references to the remote past, compared to the present and the recent past.  This is in direct contrast to the strong orientation to “what is happening right now” that is characteristic of many other types of social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, blogs).   I also found that remote past references tended to rely more on grammatical resources rather than lexical resources — for example, grammatical aspect, prepositional phrases, and adverbial clauses.  The reverse is true for present-time references, which are usually conveyed via a single word: now, today, just, etc.

The article’s publisher will make my article freely available online from Nov 23-Dec 8, and I’ll be doing an interview with the group’s convenor on Dec. 8, which will be available as a podcast afterwards.  Stay tuned for more details!

Facebook reviews

A few people have recently asked me if I’ve extended my research to reviews of businesses on Facebook.    And my short answer to that question is “no” (for all sorts of reasons) — but since this topic has been coming up a lot in the last few weeks, I’ll admit to being at least a little bit intrigued.

A friend who lives in another state told me about super negative experience she had this year with one of her local financial services businesses. She really wanted to warn others to stay away, but the only review forum she found for this business was on Facebook.  After taking a closer look, she discovered a couple of things – 1) all of the reviews were positive, and 2) it was not possible to post an anonymous review.  (Obviously, these two phenomena are related.)  Now this particular friend is a generally happy, positive person, and one who is not shy about speaking her mind…yet, she didn’t necessarily want to have her offline identity linked via her FB profile to her negative comments about this business.  Since it wasn’t possible to post a review anonymously there, she ended up not posting a review on FB.

A group of angry vegans in Ireland have shown much less caution than my friend.  When a frustrated restauranteur in Dublin posted a rant on Facebook about how vegan customers were being unreasonable in their expectations, a number of indignant vegans fired back in the reviews section of the restaurant’s FB page.  As reported here, the verbal volley between restaurant owner and online vegans continued to escalate on FB, with insults and (pseudo-) death threats growing increasingly more outrageous.  And as more and more vegans posted 1-star reviews, more and more supporters of the restaurant posted 5-star reviews.   In the end, this story went viral, people all over the world have now heard of this restaurant, and business is booming like never before.  Normally, insulting one’s customers online is probably not the best social media strategy for a business to have… but, as this case shows, there are rare instances where this kind of completely-over-the-top behavior leads to an unparalleled level of publicity.