The idea’s fantastic. In the old days, we were dependent on a lone, cranky film critic to find out whether the new Stars Wars was worth seeing. And we had to go to our parents’ and wade through a tattered Which? to discover which vacuum cleaner was easy to use.

But the ordinary consumer no longer needs the opinions of professional reviewers. We’ve cut out the middle man. You can form your own opinion – together with a few billion other customers, citizens and users who share their views online. Except: can we handle this? How smart are the masses really? And are we as liberated as we make out to be? To find out, we’ve gone old school and consul-ted six experts, here at EUR.

1. A forest full of unreliable trees

Do online reviews actually offer better evaluations? At any rate, they’re more extreme. Research into Airbnb reviews shows that 90 percent of the users award a score between 4.5 and the maximum of 5 stars in their reviews. In contrast, Ting Li, who researches online reviews and consumer behaviour at Rotterdam School of Management, has identified a very strong ‘negative bias’. “This is logical enough. Imagine you buy a book online and everything goes as planned. Your conclusion is basically: ‘Everything went as intended.’ But if something goes wrong somewhere in the chain – even a small problem with the delivery – you feel like complaining.”

And the quality of the reviews? Marc Verboord, Associate Professor of Media & Communication, has researched the use of language in film reviews, with a focus on the difference between professional newspaper critics and amateur online reviewers. After analysing over 600 reviews on film websites IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, Verboord mainly determined a difference in the adopted arguments. Generally, the amateurs follow – Verboord phrases it with some tact – a simpler line of reasoning. Smiling: “Things like: ‘I want my money back, I wasted two hours of my life on this movie.’ Or: ‘I don’t know what those reviewers are on about, my eight-year-old daughter loved it.’”
In principle, it’s great that everyone can offer their opinion and culture is broadly discussed, says Verboord. But the thing is: some websites have so many reviews online that you can’t see the forest for the trees.
Researcher Payal Arora observes that this puts pressure on specific types of culture. In his acclaimed book The Long Tail, technology expert Chris Anderson still forecast that the internet would make a wide range of obscure products available to a global (i.e. mass) audience. In practice, however, the main category to benefit from this development consists of blockbusters. Arora: “Online reviews are all about averages. Numbers, in other words. That isn’t the same as quality.” Verboord concludes: “People are increasingly concentrating on the same entertainment products.”
Challenging novels, French films, opera, classical music: high-brow culture has come under new pressure as a result. Nevertheless, Arora expects to witness a renewed appreciation of experts and their – sometimes less audience-friendly – insights. “We are nearing the end of the anti-intellectual trend – thanks in part to a growing aversion to fake reviews. In China you can find halls full of people who write positive or negative reviews to order. People are on to this. That’s why more people than ever are reading The Economist. We want to know where opinions come from.”

2. Money undermines trust

Why do we actually trust people whom we’ve never met before? It’s our herd mentality, says consumer researcher Ting Li. “People are influenced by other people. It has always been that way.” Payal Arora doesn’t object per se. “I strongly believe in the wisdom of the crowd. When a film scores an 8.6 on IMDB, I’ll go see it.”
Philosopher Esther Keymolen wanted to find out more about this phenomenon. She obtained her doctorate last year with research into trust in the digital domain. Keymolen devoted a whole chapter of her thesis to the sharing economy. “Companies like Airbnb play into a utopian dream that everyone is familiar with: an ideal world, in which we no longer need companies and chains and all transactions are direct and small-scale. In the old days you knew who to trust from common friends, the vicar or the baker. This role has been taken over by ratings.”

The question remains who is behind these ratings. Around 80% of consumers present-ly place the same faith in online reviews as they do in recommendations made by family and friends. But this is about to change, says Christilene du Plessis, whose doctoral research focuses on the consequences of incentivisation. In this process, reviewers are given a slight ‘shove in the right direction’. “We can see more and more companies lu-ring consumers with a gift or a very modest financial reward – sometimes only a few cents – to leave a review. Around 2012, 5 percent of the reviews were incentivised. By now this is over 50 percent. And we see consumers developing trust issues when they know writers are being paid. They question how honest the review actually is, and as such doubt the quality of the product itself.”

3. Old ideas parading as new

“We are currently at the stage where we need to lose a certain naiveté,” says Keymolen. “Uber and Airbnb aren’t value-free plat-forms that help us enter into personal relationships and build up reputation systems. They’re cut-throat businesses. There’s considerable friction between the community and the company.”
Keymolen is referring to the fact that it is in the interest of the community to offer honest feedback – which includes negative comments. While the company only wants to see happy customers, not moaning and griping. So she has her doubts about our tendency to almost exclusively post positive reviews on Airbnb. “We have two options: either everyone’s ecstatic all the time, or something’s ‘not quite right’. It’s a kind of social pressure. People don’t want to kill the positive buzz. So this spiel of ‘look at how nice we are, sharing,’ has become more or less mandatory. You have to support this reputation building scheme.” In addition, an online review ideally serves as a means by which the consumer can demand a better product. Keymolen: “But on platforms like Airbnb and Uber, we only ever rate the other person – never the company itself.”

And the increased freedom of choice created by the internet has also proven a contradiction in terms, says Arora. “Go figure: there are a huge number of apps, but the majority of people only use six or ten on a daily basis. And they’re the well-known hyper-monopolies: Google, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.” And according to Keymolen, these monopolies are a lot more forceful than you’d expect: “Forget about them as a facilitating third party: you are very clearly enticed to make specific choices. In that sense, this is a kind of fresh spin on an old-fashioned system. But now it isn’t the Hilton, but Airbnb. It isn’t a community, it’s a company.”

So, old ideas parading as new. We’re not so much liberated as hoodwinked by capitalism… again. So haven’t we made any progress whatsoever? Keymolen: “With new trends of this kind, people tend to either become wildly enthusiastic or completely dismissive. But above all, you need to avoid being naïve. People will never be able – or indeed want – to live without technology. Which is fine, because we can benefit a great deal from it. But with platforms like this, you need to adopt a critical attitude. It’s not just about the interface, but it’s also about a new balance of power.”

Psychiatrist: Our stress system is working overtime

All this judging – and, above all, being judged – can we actually handle this, psychologically speaking? The answer is simple: no. At least, some of the people can’t, according to Witte Hoogendijk, Professor of Psychiatry at Erasmus MC. This spring Hoogendijk published a book he had written together with journalist Wilma de Rek: From Big Bang to Burn-Out. Its main conclusion: our stress response system is obsolete in evolutionary terms, and entirely unsuited for handling the huge amount of stimuli encountered in today’s world. And ‘fight or flee’ is not an option.

According to Hogendijk, we have forgotten that some individuals can stand stressors better than others. “In the old days, we used to take this into account. One of us would go hunting, while the other would gather berries or take care of the children. But nowadays everyone is subjected to the same avalanche of stimuli. One example is the huge quantity of forum comments – with online bullying as an extreme example.”

This can lead to stress, burn-outs and sometimes even depression. Tests with lab animals shows that social defeat, in which the subject moves down a rung on the social ladder, immediately reduces its level of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates our mood. On top of this, our brains are evolutionary adapted to a maximum group size of 150 people, rather than a thousand Facebook friends and counting.

And while Hoogendijk agrees that human beings have a strong need for feedback, in his view our current online review culture is a ‘semi-finished product’: “People share numerous compliments and points of criticism, but these comments are often very a-specific. While we know from literature that the more specific the comment, the more the recipient benefits from it.” So we need to master the art of giving and receiving online reviews, says Hoogendijk. Until then: why not leave the ‘Like’ button alone for a while, and express your opinions the old-fashioned way?