A few weeks ago, I woke up and found myself in desperate need of a hair mask. I glared in the mirror and noticed crinkles and curls and split ends in places that were once populated by a dense forest of hair. I even noticed a change in my demeanor. My mood began to fall just as flat as the hair on my head, squeezed dry by a summer of salt water and UV damage. I am rarely myself when my hair isn’t at its best.
But when I began my search for the product that would best cure my hair of all its frizz, finding the golden egg became a behemoth of a task. Just after reading a lengthy review of someone praising this or that hair mask, I would be met with a startlingly negative review right below it, deposing it of its so-called glory. It took me hours upon hours to finally decide on my secret sauce. (Hint: It consists of the Olaplex No. 3 protein treatment for bleach damage, the SheaMoisture mask for hydration and the It’s a 10 Miracle mask for a post-shower pamper.)
People have told me that I make things way harder for myself than they need to be, but I don’t think spending hours reading reviews before buying a product is overcomplicating things — it’s just baseline research. I remain incredibly wary of every review I read, as I like to assess the level of similarity between myself and an unknown online stranger to gauge whether or not I should subscribe to their opinion.
Round and round I go, circling through images and search filters until my eyes are full of internal pressure from the taut blue light that radiates from my laptop at 3:30 in the morning.
I think it remains to be established: who has the agency to advise whom? Is it the fellow who leaves a one-star rating on an Amazon listing for a MacBook Air case when they actually own a MacBook Pro? And does the burden lie on the ignorantly misguided reviewer to remove misinformation from the internet, or on the naive reader who must learn how fallacious the plebeian opinion can be?
In a world where everyone’s a critic, I’m left wondering what ever happened to the promise of professional critics, to the guys we could trust to tell us what to buy, what to read, what to watch.
My solution to avoiding unreliable opinions is adding “Reddit” to the end of each search query: “hair mask reviews Reddit” or whatever product I might be seeking to learn about. This tactic cuts my searching time in half, if not more, as the search query returns a more densely packed listing of high-quality critiques.
However, I can’t claim the credit for this life saving trick. Recently, there’s been a spike in the animosity that users feel toward the trustworthy Google, a search engine now packed with ads and confusing user interface. For their information acquisition, more people admit to relying on third-party forums like Reddit, where sponsorships and affiliate links seldom make a presence and a human review is virtually guaranteed.
And there is no better antithesis to the socio-intellectual barter system of Reddit as the anarcho-capitalist mania of Amazon Prime, with that signature blue mark that lures in customers with promises of free shipping. In 2020 alone, the company had to take down 200 million “incentivized” reviews, in which average customers are bribed with gift cards and credits to leave positive comments about purchased products.
And the misleading or uninformed reviews that originate on the obtrusive retail site aren’t always intentional. Oftentimes, it’s a lack of adequate information within reviews that frustrates me — not so much the bots and sell-outs. Why thank you, Lexi, for providing everyone with such an enthralling and riveting run-down of your thoughts on Olaplex No. 3, not failing to mince words when she said, “I feel like it really doesn’t do much.”
I can’t describe the euphoric thrill of scrolling down to the reviews and finding the top comment to be a 15-paragraph long epic with a plethora of photos and comparisons to other products. This rarely ever happens, and I am left to my own devices to figure out which model someone bought and guess its size, color and proportions without any visual aid. Don’t even get me started on the unintelligible scripts written by internet novices (i.e., elderly people), with their raw-edged syntax, coarse monosyllabic phrases and extremely intimidating ellipse use …
One Sharon B. tells us about her lengthy and complex quarrel with skin patches:
These will do nothing to your skin…
The patches won’t even stick and stay.
Save your money for a better product.
For me, the elderly are still preferable over the Proper Idiots that populate the web, defined in the dictionary of my mind as:
Proper Idiot /ˈpräpər ˈidēət/ n. 1 individual who fails to meet one or both conditions of (1) purchasing the correct product and (2) using the product correctly. 2 chronically lacking common sense on the internet and being unaware of their lack of common sense.
This phenomenon of uneducated reviews calls into question the ethics of pedagogy, the morals of information and the importance of credibility.
While reviews were once published in such esteemed publications as The Atlantic or The New York Times, with subsections devoted to food and film reviews, now I can simply pull out my phone to access ratings of virtually every product and every piece of media known to man. But with this simple convenience comes the death of a true art form: professional criticism.
Despite the immense amount of experience you must procure before pursuing the career path of a critic, from acquiring proper expertise in your field to becoming comfortable with vocalizing distaste for others’ work, this profession is often less than respected among many. I think public frustration originates from the inherent nature of the career, where certain people are granted agency and influence to decide what is “good” and what isn’t, while the general populace is not.
And therein comes the infamous saying — “everyone’s a critic” — a criticism itself based on the flawed understanding that it takes much less effort to judge than it does to create. But creation and criticism lie hand in hand, because without the critic, there is no one to discriminate between what constitutes art and what is just a laundry list or another can of soup.
But does that mean anyone can criticize?
Think of the most recent review you’ve seen, whether it was a movie review on Rotten Tomatoes or a think piece from The New Yorker that caught your eye. You may find you frequently disagree with the critics who occupy your virtual social circle, but that doesn’t invalidate the judgment that someone, somewhere made to establish that individual as being qualified to present their opinion.
Professional critics are often qualified to embody the position that they do, and the same cannot be said for the average Simpleton on Amazon.com (which includes me and you, by the way).
There was a time, I think, when the view of critics was respected. Whether it be out of a lack of resources, or a mutual holiness the public used to grant them, the ideas of major critics in their field were the fuel for the industry fire. Even the negative connotations associated with their career path did not diminish the critics’ reputation by much, as many scholars still generally hold that criticism is a, well, critical component of any art.
And regardless of whether people use new products incorrectly or fail to rule out confounding variables that might cause certain negative side effects, reviewers’ words have weight. Whether on Amazon or a thrifting site, the responsibility is upon the customer to guarantee that they are not guiding online strangers into a hopeless folly.
Humans are herd animals by nature because they learn by example and survive through imitation: Why would I eat the same berries that made someone else feel sick? Why would I buy the same Amazon leggings that ripped instantly when first worn by Emily P. from Texas? Therefore, our tendency to trust others simply might be evolutionarily pre-determined and something that is dreadfully inescapable.
We are wired to associate more information with being better, though this is often not the case at all. As the industry of information has strived to produce more of the most valuable asset of the 21st century — personal data — we are forced to learn the same lesson over and over: More is often less and generally lacks superb quality. Everyone wants to have their opinions represented, and everyone looks to others for suggestions or prior experience. But if everyone’s a critic, then how can anyone be?
Blinded by the thrill of access to infinite amounts of information, we’ve failed to notice the internet becoming a mass echo chamber of dissonance, where opinion after opinion is regurgitated and even novel ideas are often platitudinous and meek. This loss of credible authority has brought forth a melancholic shift in the internet’s usefulness, where the surplus of individual belief beats down on you like the heaving gray-blue cloud cover before a storm.
No information feels quite as usable anymore, not out of issues with substance, but out of issues with quantity, and the one fleeting component the internet was supposed to provide — better access to information — has been ostracized by a pseudo-mob of angry online users. And I, personally, can’t help but mourn.
So during the next Amazon Prime Day, when herds of users are swayed once more into buying things they don’t need because of the price tag, I will be lamenting the review numbers that roll into the hundreds of thousands, etched out in an eggshell blue font on my screen, and subconsciously drafting my elegy for the recent, and most upsetting, death of the critic.
Statement Correspondent Valerija Malashevich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.