Have you ever written a product review on Amazon? Ever clicked a rating button on Rotten Tomatoes, or IMDb, or Netflix? Ever banged out a song, book, or movie review on iTunes? Added to Wikipedia? Commented on a news or opinion article? Given a purchase feedback on eBay? Argued with someone on Facebook? Hit a “like” button?

Of course you have. It’s virtually impossible that someone who uses the Internet today has not, at some point, contributed an opinion to that unfathomably vast accumulation of data, whether it be to help others make more informed decisions, to better teach suggestion algorithms what we like, to give someone feedback on a post or comment, or merely “because.” Peer-to-peer information sharing of this sort is one of the great unsung boons of modern consumerism, capitalism, and social interaction. It’s as big a part of “social media” as the platforms themselves.

Unfortunately, Internet platforms have been slowly rolling back our opportunities to exchange information in this fashion. Last year, Netflix eliminated its 5-star rating system in favor of a binary thumbs-up, thumbs-down option, and it recently shut down and deleted its user reviews section. Many news and opinion sites have eliminated their comments sections, and many that haven’t have instituted controls and/or moderation to better manage what’s posted. Even Amazon, where user reviews are a core service, has taken steps in that direction, adding an indicator as to whether someone actually bought a product to a posted review.

What’s going on? Why throttle and bottleneck the free exchange of information, when it’s become so useful?

While companies like Netflix cite reasons focused on improving the quality of their recommendations, I suspect a simpler reason: trolls and political warriors.

The elimination of the star system at Netflix seemed oddly coincidental with the release of a comedy special by Amy Schumer. Schumer’s fame has grown dramatically over the past few years. I recall hearing her on one of my morning comedy talk shows from time to time, when she was an opening or middle act for headlining comedian Jim Norton, and now she’s a headliner and a movie star. Along the way, it came out that she is related to Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, and around that time, she opted to go harshly political in her act, savaging Trump. Her Netflix comedy special, released a few months into Trump’s term, got flooded with one-star reviews.

Now, it may be that the 700 one-stars out of 900 ratings were legitimate pans by people who watched the special, but you and I both know that the toxic political climate has spilled over into, well, everything, and you and I both know that people have no compunction slapping good or bad reviews on products they haven’t even watched, read, or used, for purely partisan political reasons. Schumer is anti-Trump? Trump supporters want to spank her career for voicing a disagreeable opinion. It’s apparently not enough to merely eschew her shows.

This goes on all over the Internet. It’s ubiquitous in book reviews on Amazon, where highly-charged political tomes are routinely drowned with reviews by people who’ve obviously never read them. It is, I suspect, a contributing factor in Netflix’s recent decisions. It’s why many news sites have shut down their comments sections, and it’s why those that haven’t have become mostly useless concentrations of ugly partisan rancor.

While I wholly support a person’s choice to not patronize an artist or movie or whatever based on any reason one has, including politics, I think it pours sand in the social gear box to disingenuously down-rate a show or performer without watching it. Ditto for a product. Don’t buy it if you don’t want it, but if you don’t buy it, don’t leave a negative review of it. You may think “the other side is doing it, I have to balance the scale,” or you may think that it’s fair game to pan a De Niro movie because the man said “Fuck Trump,” and you may even succeed in sending a message to other celebrities about keeping their politics apart from their craft, but you can also send that message simply by not watching their movies and not buying their products.

Saying a movie or show sucks without watching it damages the peer-to-peer system itself. Yes, it doesn’t feel as satisfying to simply say “I’m not going to watch a Matt Damon or a Clint Eastwood or a Vince Vaughn movie because I don’t like their politics,” instead of going on line to bash or down-rate the movie itself, but the fleeting satisfaction the latter gives means that, eventually, you and I won’t be able to trust reviews and ratings as much as we’d like to.

Peer review is one of the great innovations of the Internet age, and I know I’ve been helped innumerable times by reading genuine reviews of goods, services, and entertainment products, good and bad, expert and amateur. If we corrupt this innovation by using it for political ends, we end up hurting ourselves.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


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