Updated: September 18, 2020
Twenty years ago, if anyone asked you what the future Internet would look like, you most likely would have guessed wrong. You wouldn't have said: a filthy digital landscape that is getting filthier by the day, with rare nuggets of sanity and quality here and there. Which brings us to our problem. If you are keen on partaking in this idiocracy, you may find it hard to separate good from bad.
Recently, I read a few articles talking about the rising phenomenon of fake product reviews on online shopping platforms, and the associated outrage around it. As always, most people conflate multiple issues, and forget the most important rule of social conduct: personal accountability. So I'd like to take a moment or three and tell you how you should go about your online life, with the successful outcome of being able to tell genuine from fake on the modern Internet. Let's.
What I find particularly annoying is that people externalize responsibility. In this particular case, the issue at hand is fake reviews on Amazon. But let's step back. Amazon, or any other online vendor, is not really what you should focus on. What you should focus on are YOUR actions.
First, the current geopolitical situation ('rona) is unique in that some people may actually be forced to shop online, something they wouldn't normally do - or as much. But we must look beyond that, because the phenomenon of genuine vs fake is not new, and will not go away, ever.
At some point, normal life patterns will resume (lolz), and under those conditions, you will have the ultimate choice (maybe) to decide what you want to buy and where you want to buy. In some cases, yes, you will not really have any real choice (as in you must have product X for your particular need or usecase and it's only being sold by one particular shop), but that's not the point. The point is to actually be able to get what you want rather than a "fake" thing - whatever that may be.
Ultimately, when you buy things, you want to make sure that you get what you expect. There are two ways how the expected outcome may diverge from your requirements:
- You get an incorrect product - error or fraud - and this is easy to resolve.
- You get a correct product - which you ultimately don't like for whatever reason.
The issue is, the first category actually classifies as fake. The second does not. And yet most people will label THEIR action of buying something "bad" (cheap or whatever) as "fake" rather than assume personal accountability for this action.
Let's look at two examples that illustrate the above:
- I once ordered an SD card online. I received something that barely worked - the performance was abysmal, with read and write rates well below the advertised spec. Soon, it turned out that what I got was a card intended for a different market, and the spec didn't match the label. You could say fake. I contacted the marketplace and received a refund right away, no question. Simple. I bought the right product but received a wrong one.
- Now, let's assume you want to buy something. Naturally, like lots of people, you will probably first read the reviews to get a sense of how good or bad or reliable this product may actually be. A good example can be any electronic appliance. Once you've done your share of reading, you decide to buy something. This is where people drop the ball on their personal accountability. A scenario that may unfold henceforth is this: you get the product, and it turns out it's not what YOU expected. The glowing reviews don't match YOUR experience. You are outraged. And you decide to be a victim of fake reviews.
You are a victim of your OWN choice.
No one forced you to buy anything. You simply used information at hand to make that choice.
Instant gratification, trust, reality
The problem is, most people don't want to admit their own mistakes. It's easier to blame other people for doing whatever they're doing (which could be legitimately bad or morally wrong) than to blame yourself for listening to their advice or feedback. When YOU read reviews online, YOU decide what to accept or not. YOU. If someone wrote you can fly, and you tried that and broke your legs falling off a building roof, it's YOUR fault.
But Dedo, you troll, don't online shops also have "personal" accountability for the information published in their stores?
Yes, they do. And long-term, this will be a deciding factor in the shop's reputation, customer satisfaction, and ultimately, profit and survivability of these shops. That's not important. Because, at the end of the day, there could be fake reviews that slip checks, there could be misleading reviews written by people who simply are clueless and just sharing their experiences, there could be reviews by people whose taste and expectations don't match yours, there could be a thousand other reasons why you could end up reading something.
You cannot control online shops. You can control YOUR actions.
It's about trust. And being able to perfectly trust online source so you can do things as you please. But no, that's not how life works. Trust is something that takes a lot of time and effort building, and it can be destroyed instantly.
Which means buying stuff online shouldn't be a trivial activity. It takes time and dedication, especially if you want to buy a product that lies outside your area of expertise. For example, for me, buying electronics or software is easy. But that's after decades of working in the field. I will know everything that needs to be known about brands, products, models, whatever, and I will often buy the necessary hardware and applications directly from vendors. Easy. Now, I wouldn't be so confident if I needed to buy building materials for a home, for instance. Or an oven. Or a lawnmower.
And this is the problem. People invest five minutes reading random info online, and then decide that the star rating system is good enough for them, and boom, they buy something, and then they act all surprised and indignant when the end result does not match their expectations.
Would you buy a car after only five minutes of "info" gathering? Or a house? No, of course you would not. You'd research the living daylights until you knew every bit. So why would you not invest a similar kind of effort when buying other things? Just because they are cheaper? Well, YOUR choice.
I will sometimes spend days - DAYS - reading about products, correlating information, harvesting data until I'm confident that I'm going to make the right choice buying whatever it's that I need. Yes, you are less likely to go wrong buying staples than a laptop, but even so, why not spend some extra time trying to figure out what gives.
Pessimism is your friend
So, the next problem is that you want to buy stuff online at a marketplace (like Amazon), and you see a lot of similar products out there, with lots of details, lots of reviews, and it all looks confusing. The bigger problem is, you're not really savvy in the domain, so all those numbers and letters are just one big mess. Frankly, you can't really blame people for not being experts in everything. Imagine someone trying to buy a hard disk. They get technobabble terminology like HDD, SSD, NVMe, different types of connectors, cell types, firmware, nonsense.
So what do you do? You embrace pessimism.
Sturgeon's Law says that 90% of everything is crap. That's a good starting point. Like it, don't like it, that's humanity for you. Don't fight it. Embrace it. Simply assume that if you make an uneducated guess and choose a product at random, nine out of ten times you will be disappointed.
But what about online reviews?
What about them? Are you looking for a magic formula that will help you distinguish good reviews from bad reviews? That doesn't really exist. Let me exemplify:
"I love this product. Works as advertised. 5/5."
Say you find a review like the one above. What now? Good? Fake? Useful?
It could be written by someone in return for payment. It could be a paid review AND reflect a genuine opinion. It could also be a paid review AND not reflect a genuine opinion. Or it could be a genuine and freely given expression by a satisfied user. Not everyone is Edgar Alan Poe, and not everyone wants to waste an hour writing reviews online.
Secondly, you may instantly assume that a paid review is bad, a scam, whatnot. Wrong. Well, in some cases, it could be perfectly fine and legitimate. Now, some online shops discourage or even forbid paid reviews, but others don't. There isn't a general law or regulation about this matter. Besides, a paid review can actually be positive. Or negative. There's no strict path from monetary compensation for a product review to the final star rating.
So what do you do here? Accept this? Ignore this? The answer is, neither.
You could then say, well, let's look for products with lots of reviews. The law of large numbers dictates that there ought to be less margin for error if a lot of people expressed satisfaction with the product. Again, wrong. Go to Youtube, and check the view numbers and like numbers for various clips. You don't need to go far, just check the Recommendations page. In most cases, I can't even begin to express my disdain and dislike over what is shown. I don't care if it has 12M views and 3,555 likes, especially if they were all given by people who have 100% different taste and need than myself. But hey, if you're looking for herd validation, then look for herd solace when you make wrong choices.
Maybe 1-star reviews?
Now, you are starting to make sense. But actually, what I've discerned over the years is that good reviews are not dependent on their actual number. Good - as in informative - reviews are all about detail.
A good review will focus on the actual usage and offer insight into how a product works. Using electronics as my favorite topic, if someone talks about a laptop keyboard or screen, that's something worth paying attention to, because you will ultimately end up hammering on said keyboard and staring at said screen, so they ought to do as advertised. But again, context is important.
A laptop recommendation by a software developer is not the same as a recommendation by a graphics designer. Similarly, on a completely different topic, take a look at my review of BMW M4. Lovely car. One of my favorites. But if you asked me whether you should buy it, the answer would probably be no, because very few people need a dope sports car, or live in a nice country where you can floor it. If you live in a city, and/or you have kids, no matter how wonderful the machine actually is, the car isn't suitable for such needs.
When someone points something out - good or bad - you need the why. Without it, the information is useless.
Now, as it happens, most of 1-star and 5-star reviews tend to be frugal. Most 2-star and 3-star reviews tend to be far more informative, and if you take your time, you may find the details you need. Speaking of Amazon, there's often a section of questions and answers for any selected product, and those can also be quite informative, as they shed light on what people need. And don't forget - opinions are inherently true.
In the end, there's no magic. You need to invest time and effort in learning about the product. If you shortcut that, you will be disappointed.
Your reading does not have to be restricted to any one particular market place. Correlate and compare information among different stores, read reviews on independent websites, try to figure out whether the product offers what you need. Try to filter out bullshit - nothing personal, that's the way the Internet is, don't get all indignant, simply focus on making sure you end up doing the best thing for you. Remember, ultimately, the decision which information to disregard and which to use is YOURS.
Of course, what does not help is the modern Web 2.0 mentality. People confuse fact and opinion. People live in isolated bubbles that reinforce their biases and errors. Social media encourages people to align their thoughts to a common narrative, because idiots are more profitable. So, finding good data is becoming harder by the day.
Nerds are your friends, too
If you're lucky enough to know someone who is an actual expert in a domain, then they are your most cherished possession. If you know someone who knows everything about fishing gear, about faucets, about cars, about forestry, or perhaps musical instruments, then they should be your go-to person when it comes to buying things.
But here, paradoxically, we often see people act irresponsbly, because it's easier.
Case in point: I often get asked for hardware recommendations. My first question is: what's the actual intended usage. Once people tell me what they need, I then do my part and share with them my recommendation on what I believe would be the best choice for them. Almost exclusively, the reaction is as follows:
- People try to needlessly argue with me about some of the details, probably they need to feel like they're contributing to the conversation. Often, it will be some half-arsed rumor they read somewhere, and think that dropping a buzzword or two will make them sound knowledgeable. For instance, if I suggest mechanical disk, they'll say that they read about SSD being XYZ. Just a word filler really.
- People are often surprised that the COST of my recommended solution is HIGHER than what they expected to budget in for the product. The reason is, most people underestimate the cost of quality, or live in denial and think they can get something for nothing. The abundance of "free" stuff online has certainly spoiled people, but even so, the times I've encountered people who want a "cheap" laptop that does wonders is simply astounding. When I tell most people that a USD1,000 laptop is more economic and practical as a solution over a 6-year old period than two USD500 laptops with a 3-year life span (replacement), they often stare at me in confusion.
Perceived authority plays part in this equation, too. Again, I've encountered a lot of cases where people would ask me for recommendations, scoff at the price, and then go with whatever the T-shirted clerk in an appliance store suggests (don't forget the annual anti-virus subscription), only to end up wondering why their wunderbox isn't wunderboxing as much as they imagined it should. But of course, there are irredeemable cases, which does nothing to diminish their sense of righteousness and their right to complain online once reality disappoints.
So what's your point, Vanessa?
No shortcuts. I told you this in my fake news article. In fact, the whole online drama about reviews is just a continuation of the wider problem of personal accountability and willingness to learn. It's easier to blame others than oneself. It's easier to expect miracles from Amazon than spend actual time trying to make sure you do not fall prey to greed, mistake or chance.
If you want to make sure you end up buying satisfactory products, roll up your sleeves and dive into the cesspool called the Internet, and start fishing for the nuggets of wholesome and true hidden in its murky depths. Everything else leads to bitterness, resentment and disappointment.
The (shopping) list
But ... but ... you came here for actual, practical advice. I only gave you a pseudo-philosophical rant. So here's a short list of some things you can do to make sure you can tell genuine and fake apart:
- Assume the information you see is most likely wrong.
- Don't pay any attention to number ratings or the number of ratings.
- Typically, if you really must, you will have more luck with 2-star or 3-star reviews as they tend to be more verbose (humans are more expressive when negative than positive).
- Read the information in detail and look for WHY some feature is good or bad. Without the WHY, the information is meaningless.
- Correlate multiple sources (like news, looks for conflicting "facts" and viewpoints).
- If you are not an expert, random choices will usually lead to disappointment.
- If you are not an expert, you must invest a lot of time reading about the products you seek.
- Try to have a knowledgeable nerd expert as a friend - and listen to them.
- Quality costs money - more than you think.
- Don't be emotional about the state of the Internet and the fact there could be "fake" information out there. This is an integral, inseparable part of being human.
- Assume personal accountability for your actions based on the information and data you have. You can always fall back to being a victim of "misled by the media" and "fake reviews everywhere" - which does not exonerate the third-parties at all, mind, but at the end of the day, choices and actions are individual. We all seemingly listen to the same news and read the same stuff (on average), and yet we all interpret data differently and act differently. Because at the end of the day, it's about your individual choices.
- Being personally accountable does not mean letting things slide - fight your battle against fake reviews, complain when needed, and insist on high quality products and trustworthy information. But this does not preclude or replace personal accountability.
There are tons of ancient adages that apply here, all of which show the problem of trust is universal, and has nothing to do with online shops. They are simply the latest manifestation of humanity, greed and stupidity. Beware of Greeks (geeks) bearing gifts. Don't expert something for nothing. You can only be betrayed by those you trust. And so on. Online reviews are not important. What matters is how YOU handle information.
You will notice I did not really talk about the online marketplaces. That's because YOU don't control them. You only control YOU, and that's where the sphere of your accountability starts and ends. Manage that well, and you will be a more confident (if not happier) netizen of the Net. Today, it's 5-star reviews on Amazon, tomorrow, it will be 7-planet reviews on Rainforest. It doesn't matter. Some people will try to deliberately mislead you, some will accidentally mislead you, some will rant, some will say nothing. That's humanity, just exposed through digital forms. The only question is, what part of that humanity you want to be?
And the only way to spot genuine from fake is - like in real life - hard, hard work. Detail and context (why), both of which you need to understand. Otherwise, your interactions will fall short of their target, whether it's talking to people or buying stuff online. An inseparable part of being human, so don't blame others for it. Which is also why "AI" is so useless in moderating content, be they comments or reviews. We're done here.
P.S. All of the images used in this article are in public domain.