I was going to write a post this week about fake positive reviews, in the context of sponsored content by social influencers, who unfailingly seem to discover that things are absolutely super. Surprise surprise.
We know that social influencers have a vested interest in finding things totally amazing, be that the fact that their friend wrote the book, or the country house hotel gave them a free night’s stay, or the yoghurt was yoghurty, or the handbag was not only free gratis, but also wrapped up in gorgeous paper with a hand-written note which said “Dear Blogger. By accepting this handbag you agree that you will find this bag amazing. And we will not report you to the Advertising Standards Authority. Smooches!!”
Moan, Moan, LOLs
Anyway, I was going about trying to make it funny, in order to take the sting out of the fact that I was basically giving out about people who are only trying to scratch a living, even though I believe the words “I received this product for free in exchange for an honest review” “#ad” or “#sponsored” are woefully inadequate in dealing with the murkiness of social influencer marketing.
But then I started thinking about horrible reviews instead, and the difference between the dubious positivity of branded bloggers, and the savage negativity of anonymous reviews.
Because for people who have nothing to lose – particularly their good name – there does seem to be a woeful tendency towards negative reviews. Why is that, I wondered?
Why do we care so much if we don’t like something?
Right, says I to myself. I’ll write about that instead, says I.
And then I remembered that I’ve done it. I’ve been there. I’ve been the shitty negative reviewer. And I’d totally forgotten.
I can’t be sure, but I think that the very first review I ever wrote online was scathing. This is years and years ago, long before Facebook, long before I started blogging, and long before the toxic review culture we all know and love today.
I’d been given a book as a present. It was everything I should have wanted in a book: a historical epic sweeping through different countries and several years, with overwhelmingly positive reviews.
Anyway, I didn’t like it. In fact, for some reason, I took a visceral dislike to it. I know it was because I was annoyed by the sledgehammer ‘Oirishness’ of it. There were so many godawful Hollywood Irish stereotypes in it that I almost vomited shamrocks. The prose was so flowery and overwrought, I had to read a dishwasher manual afterwards just to clean my brain out.
But none of that explains why I felt the need to take it upon myself to go on the Internet and write my first ever book review, slagging the hell out of it like I’d been personally offended by the fact that it had ever been written.
[I’d like to take this opportunity to point out that my review didn’t do one iota of damage to this book or its author, who I’m sure never even knew about my shitty review seeing as the book was an international bestseller with almost 100% positive reviews save for my whingey little bout of self-righteousness. Okay? Carry on.]
So Why Was I Such A Dick About It?
It’s not even that I didn’t get any enjoyment out of the book. I used to read out the worst bits whenever there was a party in my house. People invariably fell around laughing (although admittedly, there was probably a fair amount of drink taken at that point). Some even wanted to act it out, which meant that I ended up regretting only having one copy to divvy out. Go figure.
But I’ve been trying to figure out what triggers someone into writing negative reviews which venture into the twin territories of Nasty and Mean. And I think I’ve come up with the answer, and that is: positive reviews.
Think about it. What happens when you don’t like something? Particularly a book, a TV show, or a movie? You go online, don’t you, to see what other people said about it? And you zero in on the most extreme reviews – don’t you? The ones that say it was amazing, and the ones which say it’s awful?
But what happens if you go online to see what people said about the thing you don’t like and everyone says it’s great? What if you can’t find one single negative review? Admit it. You might get a little pain, mightn’t you? A little pain which says: “I am the only person who can tell people how awful this thing was.” You feel alone. Not only that, you feel responsible.
There is a great wave of responsibility on the internet. So many people who feel that they must tell people what they think, for fear that other people might believe the wrong thing, or have the wrong opinion, or cast the wrong vote, or buy the wrong product, thinking that it’s good, when it isn’t.
I’m 94% sure that that is what I thought I was doing when I wrote that shitty review. I felt it was my responsibility to tell other people – particularly other Irish people, because no disrespect to Americans, but I’m sure they couldn’t care less whether a book is vomity shamrockery or not – that this book was insulting.
Except the thing is, it wasn’t insulting to Irish people. It wasn’t even insulting to me. I might just have been in a bad mood when I read it. Perhaps I’d dreamed the entire shooting script of Far and Away the night before, which set me into full defensive mode, whereby even one “Top o’ the mornin’ to ya” would set my phasers to Maim.
Either way, it doesn’t excuse my shitty review. I was only one person, with one opinion. But I don’t believe the answer to scathing reviews lies in universally positive reviews, either.
I know I keep harping on about this, but 2* and 3* reviews can lend a book a necessary kind of legitimacy. Particularly if universally positive reviews are going to send someone over the edge.
If I could get authors to take one thing away from this, from my experience as a reader, and a one-time shitty reviewer: please take comfort from your negative reviews. They just might be keeping the unreasonably shitty ones at bay.