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.