Webrage: The Power(lessness) of the Product Review

Webrage by Abigail Smith

Illustration by Abigail Smith

The way one acts in one’s car, armored in the anonymous protection of moving steel, says a lot about one. I’ve seen a man one second bend over backwards before others—quivering, helpless—then the next second transform inside his car into a tyrant.  There is a profound powerlessness at work in the worst of road rage.  As there is in the current-day product review.  What started off as a forum for consumers to reflect breezily on product experience has birthed an entirely new genre of writing: one shaped, perhaps more than any other, by helplessness.

Let’s start by looking at this one review on a travel mug, which I pieced together into a sort Frankenstein composite of about 40 such anonymous reviews across various online retailers:

I’d been on the market for a travel mug for some months. I love drinking coffee—especially during my long morning commute to work. Morning just isn’t morning without that hot cup. It gives such a comforting feeling!

For years I used one of those 90’s plastic travel mugs work—you know, the kind you get at your company picnic. But the problem with those mugs is that they are not well insulated and have a big drinking hole, so the coffee gets cold and stale so fast! 

I heard good things about the new [name brand] travel mug so I thought, Why not?  Why not give it a try? 

And boy was I wrong!  The new [name brand] travel mug just sucks.  The company claims it will keep your coffee warm for up to four hours, but when I used it, I took a sip of my coffee just an hour into my commute and it was already feeling cold and stale.  I didn’t even finish the rest of the coffee.  I threw it away, I was so upset.  

Shame on you, [name brand], for putting out this garbage for $15! Reader, take my word for it; you should avoid buying this at all costs.  Save your money.  I’m writing the company to get my money back!

Omniscience of perspective

The new [name brand] travel mug just sucks.

In contrast to the first-person narrator in literature, who remains locked in the finitude of mind and body, the omniscient point-of-view knows bounds of neither time, space, nor mind. It is the view from nowhere, and of everywhere. Unbound from the “I,” it hovers above all other “I’s,” seeing into their motives even as it sees how they interact as a whole.

Omniscience is the viewpoint par excellence of the product review.

In declaring that the travel mug “just sucks,” this reviewer (let’s call him Joe) does a few things.  First, a trick of mind leads Joe to believe that his experience was the rule rather than the exception.  What if this was just one of a miniscule minority of mugs that happened to be defective? What if he himself had handled the mug improperly, causing the malfunction? What if he were to try using it the following day and it suddenly worked?  None of these reflections occur to Joe as he projects his experience into all-encompassing reality: as his psyche overflows its borders, engulfing the worldBecoming thus the grand echo chamber of the Self, product-review cyberspace shuts down a self-reflection, a self-questioning, that makes us human.

Joe also ignores the many other product reviews claiming a positive experience with the mug—earning the mug a total of 4 out of 5 stars.  His experience stirs in him a turmoil that drowns out the other voices in what could have been a rational exchange of minds.  In cyberspace, the Reviewer has the last word as the ultimate Authority: isolated before his laptop at two in the morning, adrift in a waking dreaming somehow neither solitude nor society.

Webrage

Shame on you, [name brand], for putting out this garbage for $15! Reader, take my word for it; you should avoid buying this at all costs.  Save your money.  I’m writing the company to get my money back!

This product review is a revenge fantasy.  As in revenge cinema—where the action hero brings down an evil government—Joe uses his super-powers of anonymity to confront a multimillion dollar business. The company could stop production on this travel mug without hurting, but Joe doesn’t know this, and he fantasizes rallying up readers to take up bats and arms and to march against the company that hurt him so.

This webrage, as I’m calling it, spurns strange creatures of all kinds in the realm of interpersonal Web dynamics.  Such as shaming. One really surprising place where I have seen the language of shaming take fiercest expression is in the iTunes app store. Go to any app that has less than 4.5 stars and more than 100 reviews, and alert yourself to the recurrence of the phrases Shame on you! and I want my money back!   

The New York Times has aptly called similar forms of internet aggression “The Outrage Machine.”

Personal intimacy as infomercial

I’d been on the market for a travel mug for some months. I love drinking coffee—especially during my long morning commute to work. ….  I heard good things about the new [name brand] travel mug so I thought, Why not? ….  And boy was I wrong!

Notice how Joe does something deeply human here. He tells a story: a story that refracts his own personhood, such as the soothing pleasure he takes in drinking coffee in the morning.  Joe wants to share a part of who he is with us. He wants to be known.  The review reaches out its arm to others.

But then notice also how this reaching-out remains locked inside the structure of a “testimonial”-style television ad.  Testimonial commercials are precisely about the testifier’s quest for fulfillment, specifically through the act of buying and using a product. Joe was on a search. He was looking for something. There was a hole in his heart that only the right travel mug could fill.  But did this [name brand] mug succeed in doing so?  Was this the thing that would make his life complete? In many of the online testimonial-style reviews on this travel mug, the answer was yes; and in these reviews, reviewers lavished praise on the makers of such a wonderful product.  But in Joe’s case, the hole remains empty. His existential quest for the perfect travel companion goes on.  Someday; someday….

It is a basic human impulse to testify, to share one’s story, to self-reveal.  It’s what we’ve been doing ever since we learned to create symbols. What shape does Everyman’s story take in the early 21st century? The once-was-lost-but-now-am-found (or -still-lost) logic of the product review.  It’s where we go now to tell our stories.  Perhaps the only story the average Joe has left.

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Erick Sierra

Erick Sierra

Erick Sierra lives in Pilsen, Chicago. Visit his website at www.ericksierra.com.

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