Just How Useful?

I don’t do a lot on-line, so I’ll be the first to admit, I’m behind the times.  That’s why I’m bringing my question to you folks.  Here’s what happened…

One Reviewer's Opinions

One Reviewer’s Opinions

Last week, I was considering buying a DVD of an anime series I already owned as a gift for a friend.  I went to Amazon to see if they had it and noticed there were two different packages.   Since I wanted to make sure that I had the right set and I found Amazon’s summary notes a little cryptic, I clicked on the on-line reviews as a means of seeing if there was any advantage to one package over another.  I started skimming, then found myself continuing to read in a sort of fascinated horror.

I know this particular series very well but, if I had been a newcomer, I would have had no idea what to think.  I might even have thought that two completely different series with the same title were being reviewed.  That’s how varied the comments were.

The animation was rated as artistic and creative.  It was lambasted as lousy and cut rate.  The music was singled out as boring and repetitious.  The music was praised as wonderful and dynamic.  The story line was assessed as provocative and thoughtful.  The story line was dismissed as limited and episodic.  And the characters…  I swear I wouldn’t have known them!  Even the reviewers who liked them tended to be reductive in their assessment of some very complex personalities.

So how useful are these sites that permit reviews anyhow?

Writers have a love-hate relationship with on-line reviewing sites, especially those with no limits and no moderation.  Everyone has heard tales of fans and/or writers who have taken advantage of the anonymity to use multiple accounts to pump up their favorites and downgrade works they view as rivals.  Since it only takes a single one-star review to lower a book or movie’s overall average, this is pretty creepy.

A few years ago, I heard from a reliable source that one writer deliberately set out to trash any book he viewed as competition for his own forthcoming novel.  His enthusiasm for his project drew attention to itself, creating a trail that eventually led to his unmasking and the reviews being removed.  Even so, he certainly did damage.  It’s enough to make a potential victim’s skin crawl.

At Bubonicon a couple of weeks ago, Guest of Honor Tim Powers talked about how he obsessively reads his on-line reviews.  He was very funny as he talked about ranting and raving, thinking up complex revenges upon those who didn’t understand his work.  He asked me if I read my on-line reader reviews.  I admitted that I don’t look at them.   I tend to get too upset when someone misses the point entirely or, worse, gets some crucial fact completely wrong, then chews my book apart for not doing what they think it should have done – but did in fact do!

It would not be good form to fight back, but I am a fighter, so it’s best not to put myself in the position of fuming quietly (or not so quietly, at least as far as Jim is concerned).

Even with this anime series I was looking at, I found myself pushing down an impulse to write a volume of commentary, pointing out the deep, philosophical underpinnings of the recursive story.  However, looking at the site’s chronological organization, I knew what I wrote would soon be lost.  For a short time, my piece might be the first someone would see, but eventually it would be buried.

So, just how useful are these on-line reviews?  If you were looking for a good quality assessment of a book or movie, where would you go?  Having had this bad experience, I’m curious as to what a tyro like myself may be missing.

16 Responses to “Just How Useful?”

  1. Alan Robson Says:

    Speaking for myself, I read the 5 star reviews for informaton and the 1 star reviews for amusement. I ignore anything between those extremes. Mostly they aren’t worth the electrons they are written with. Also, as a rough rule of thumb, the longer the 5 star review the more useful it is likely to be. The more reviews there are, the more likely it is that this advice will hold true…


  2. paulgenesse Says:

    I read the reviews of books, and like Alan said, I look at the extremes. I think there is usually some truth in there. I mostly read book reviews though, and find that many of them do hold true. When a horrible review gets posted about a book I loved, I sometimes comment on the review, and take the reviewer to task. Especially if they slammed on a book by a friend of mine. I never respond to my own book reviews, though. Overall, I love Amazon, and I think the reviews do help me make decisions on products–sometimes even books. (grin)

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    At Amazon, at least, I tend to look at the most influential reviews. The problem with the 5 stars is that it can be “looks great, can’t wait to try it,” while the two star review may start with ‘I’ve owned it for a year, and while it’s good for some things, especially in the first month, it has serious problems with the following….”

    Yes, I realize we’re talking about entertainment here, not light bulbs or vacuums, but something similar applies. There’s no particular reason for anyone to assume that a book (or any product) has to be five star to be what I want. It’s the same kind of thinking that’s led to grade inflation in school: A is for average, B is for failures, and the rest of the grades are there to progressively humiliate the loser, not to provide useful information. Anyone remember the days when C was the class average outside a freshman chemistry class.

    Personally, I think Sturgeon got it right: at most, 10% of books deserve a five star rating. I’ll happily read a four star or even a three star book (the latter especially if it’s the only reference I can find on some topic), but I’m old school: I reserve five stars for something special and try to be honest rather than punitive.

  4. Nicholas Wells Says:

    I don’t look at reviews for media as it’s too influenced by personal taste. I mean, the Harry Potter books were so well reviewed you’d think I’d love them! Kind of enjoyed book 1, never finished book 2. Both sides of that coin are far too quick to proclaim on a soap box into a loud speaker their view point and why they are right.

    So I listen to people I talk to. I listen for traits, and parts, and I dig between the lines to listen for things I would or would not like. Some one once told me the premise for Wolf’s Rain for example, and while it sounded like a good series, they also mentioned elements I knew I wouldn’t enjoy, and would in the end ruin the show (like the ending for Mass Effect 3 did).

    If you do look to the reviews at all, I say look only for raw facts, no opinions. Look for the hidden details within the review to tell you what the book is actually about. For opinions, you go to people you trust and/or think along the same lines you do. My mom and I like many of the same kind of books, so I trust her to say “this one is good” and have it be true for me too.

    In the end though, I stick to the back of the book, and in the case of movies and TV shows, trailers. True it’s the seller trying to convince you it’s a great whatever, but they’re more honest about the meat of the story because after all, that’s what will make you buy it.

  5. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    If it’s an author I’m not familiar with, I read the reviews, and if extreme views are presented, I try to find other reviews by the same person. If that person has done a review of a book I’m already familiar with, I can see what the reviewer thinks of that. If he/she hated a book I love (or vice versa), I’ll note why, and then take into consideration that we have different tastes.

  6. Peter Says:

    I generally don’t pay much attention to reviews, period – I’ve always preferred word of mouth to reviews, whether online or print.

    What I *do* find useful in online shopping are the “people who bought/liked X also bought/liked Y” type recommendation engines, whether they’re part of a store like Amazon or a site like Goodreads – I’ve gotten turned onto some good books I probably would otherwise have overlooked by those recommendations.

  7. Chad Merkley Says:

    I think it depends on the context of the review–an anonymous review on a sales site is going to be impossible to evaluate. But the exact same comment from someone you know is completely different–you know something about that person’s tastes, values and opinions. You have some idea of how thoughtfully and carefully those opinions and ideas are formed. You don’t get that from an anonymous review. As Jane noted, the reviewer could be motivated by any number of things unrelated to the actual work being reviewed.

    So I tend to ignore reviews on Amazon et alia and get recommendations from friends, family, and a handful of blogs, especially looking at recommendations from authors that I’ve enjoyed (P.S., Jane, thank you for recommending Ruled Brittania last week. A great concept, very well executed, and incredibly clever writing. I’ve only ever read one other book by Turtledove, Into the Darkness, which I didn’t enjoy much at all. Now I think I might have to take another look at his work.).

  8. Rowan Says:

    I find reviews somewhat helpful, but I weight them differently, and I also give them more or less time of day depending on where they’re from. I am fairly sure (I’d be hard pressed to find it right now, but I think I actually read a study or two on this) that people who are dissatisfied are more likely to leave feedback. People who like their purchase fine may not feel the need to go rave about it online, but people who have even a minor annoyance feel like they need to warn others. So my personal math puts about three bad reviews as equaling the weight of one positive review.

    The other indicator is going to be the average audience of the site. Amazon casts a much wider net, so their reviews are /more/ likely to be normalized. However, there’s a whole series of obscure and frequently perpetually “out of stock” items that have become repositories for creative joke reviews. An enterprising grocery outlet once sold frozen rabbit through Amazon and even though they don’t any more, the product page is still there, and pretty damn silly if you read what users have to say.

    Rotten Tomatoes has a pretty good system of film reviewing where it aggregates professional and blog reviews as well as allowing people to vote about how they liked the film, so it comes up with two separate ratings: how well it has been reviewed and what percentage of the audience liked it.

    For books, I generally look at the Amazon page that has the best-rated positive view and the best-rated critical review side by side, and ignore the rest. It gives me an overview that might tell me if it’s the sort of book for me (a lot of well-rated critical reviews are people who did not /hate/ the book but have some complaints, which I find more helpful than a rant against it).

    So… confused yet?

  9. Louis Robinson Says:

    For a contribution from the curmudgeonly side, I’ve been looking for a completely trustworthy reviewer since the last of Peter Schuyler Miller’s The Reference Library entries was published almost 40 years ago. I have yet to find anyone else whom I can be sure will let me know ahead of time whether or not I’ll like a book. Spider Robinson came pretty close, but decided not to keep up the reviews. I can see that our friend Alan and I only agree about 6 or 7 times out of 10. No doubt there’s someone out there, but I’ve never made the connection.

    So, I end up doing my own reviewing: I can’t recall the last time I bought a book that I hadn’t, one way or another, read at least 10-15% of. If the cover matter consists entirely of the literary equivalent of ‘the greatest thing since sliced bread’, I won’t even crack it open unless it’s by someone on the rather short list of authors who’ve never been unreadable. Finding, on-line or in person, that the author is an interesting person is a big plus.

    So what use are on-line reviews? As the French would have it, aucune!

  10. janelindskold Says:

    Thanks for the intelligent and thoughtful comments. I was both encouraged — and saddened — to find out how many people rely on 5 star reviews since, as Rowan noted, those are the ones least likely to be given. I enjoyed the formulas various people have constructed to make the on-line sites work for them.

    I agree with those who said that a recommendation from someone who knows your tastes etc is best and found it interesting that some people go to the extent of checking out other on-line reviews by the same person to try and find out what they’re interested in.

    Several people mentioned Good Reads. I’ve heard the term but I’m not really familiar with them. Would someone care to clarify?

    • Peter Says:

      Goodreads – goodreads.com – is a Web site with a variety of book-related functions – reviews (for those who like to do their research it’s easy to see all of a given person’s posted reviews), discussion groups (users can start their own), and so forth. I find the handiest functions are their recommendation engine (which works much like you’d expect – “People who rated this book highly also rated this other book highly”, with the ability to fine-tune recommendations if it tosses out something you aren’t interested in) and virtual bookshelves, which I tend to use as a gigantic virtual post-it note – I have shelves for “Skimmed this one/read a sample, didn’t grab me”, “Heard some good buzz, look into it later”, “Flipped through it in the store, looks good, buy next paycheque”, “Author just mentioned on their blog that the final ms has been handed in, ETA next year sometime, don’t forget to buy it when it gets released” and so on.

      The site’s also handy for cataloguing one’s library, since it integrates with calibre (for tracking ebooks) and if you have a smartphone with a camera you can scan the UPC on a treebook for quick addition (also handy for bookmarking things for future reference if you see in a store but don’t want to buy it that instant).

      • janelindskold Says:

        Thank you!

        Your explanation is what I would call an excellent review: thoughtful, well-balanced, and intelligently discussed!

      • Peter Says:

        Happily, on the Internet only your dog knows you’re blushing.

        One thing I forgot to mention is that the site also has a marketing element, since it allows writers and publishers to connect with readers directly, via direct messages, groups, or things like giveaways and promos.

  11. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    I’ve hear “good reads” too, but just figured it was a … how to say this? … a good book to read, for some people. Silly me; I didn’t realize there was a Deeper Meaning! 🙂
    One thing I forgot to add in my previous comments was that if the reviewer’s grammar and spelling are poor, I don’t give the review much weight.

  12. Sue Says:

    I read reviews. It doesn’t matter how many stars, what I am looking for is good content in the review, so I might skim through all of them looking for those with some length to them. If the reviewer didn’t bother to say more than “It was great!”, that’s as little help as “It stunk!” And I’m with Julie — if reviewers can’t write, then maybe they don’t have very good standards about what they read, and I don’t trust them.
    Reviews are just one more tool to help find new authors. I also take advantage of sample chapters (one of the best uses for one’s Kindle!), and of course the blogs of author friends! 🙂

  13. CBI Says:

    For fiction, reviews are often too much a matter of /de gustibus/ to be useful.
    For non-fiction, however, I find them useful, when used with some effort at discernment. Also, whereas I mainly read fiction for pleasure, and not some deep meaning, there are a wider variety of reasons, including just to understand what arguments are being made by people who have come to different conclusions than you have. (These can be hard to read, but often are enlightening.)

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