By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Folks, brace yourself.  I’m going to make a statement that will blow your mind.  The internet is revolutionary! BOOM!…In reality,we all understand that the internet has, and is, radically transforming our lives. Information transmission, social networking,  international trade, finding significant others; the internet has changed these central aspects of  human experience.  For some cultural commentators, the internet is the best thing that has ever happened to humankind; for others, it is absolutely the worst.  But, there is no denying on either side that it is here to stay, and it is only going to become more transformational as years go by.

A couple weeks ago, Peter Stern and I were having a discussion about the internet’s effect on film.  Peter asked me my thoughts on streaming movies and television shows. I let him know that I have Netflix streaming, and I generally enjoy the service, save a few annoyances.  For instance, I can’t stand Netflix’s 5 star-rating system, and yet, I have a hard time ignoring it.  After pondering what bothered me so much about this rating system, I realized it is indicative of a larger dangerous trend that the internet has brought about: the digitalization of viva voce, or word of mouth.

The internet is radically democratic.  This is the best and the worst thing about it. Anyone can write anything.  Information is ubiquitous and generally free.  Such a radical democratic nature seems wonderful, but it becomes troubling images (11)when it is combined with two other calling-cards of the internet: user anonymity, and instantaneous info transmission.  Behind a relative veil of secrecy, any person can state a crude, uninformed, ridiculous opinion, and, on the web, it can flourish. Often, the loudest, most sensationalist ideas prevail over more reasoned argument. This is obvious in the political realm, where a man like Alex Jones can spread his lunacy far beyond what might be expected because of tools such as youtube and twitter.  Digital word of mouth politics is often based upon hearsay and conspiratorial theory.

However, the digitalization of word of mouth goes far beyond fringe politics.  This novel form of communication influences anyone who buys, sells, or watches goods and entertainment on the web: In other words, almost everyone with a computer. Of course, prior to its digitalization, word of mouth had historically been central to entertainment and consumption.  The great change with digitalization is the user anonymity mentioned previously.  Traditional spoken word of mouth is based upon trust and understanding between two people. If your best friend, who has a great sense of the hippest new music, tells you how great an artist is, what do you do?  Likely, listen to the friend and check out the artist.  Or, imagine if your uncle with an incredible palate tells you about how poor the food is at the neighborhood’s new restaurant. What do you do?  Probably avoid the place.  Viva voce has always been influential in the decision-making process because it is based upon mutual respect and understanding between two consensual parties. Word of mouth traditionally empowered an individual by helping him/her make an informed decision.

By digitalizing word of mouth, the internet has greatly increased the quantity of viva voce, but at the cost of quality.  Though the star rating system is obviously simplistic, it is quantifiably influential. It is hard to look past 300 separate itunes reviewers panning the album your friend told you was great, or 100 yelp reviewers giving that neighborhood restaurant 5 stars that your uncle hated.  Such is the power of peer pressure that I inevitably take into account when a book I want has only 3 of 5 stars on Amazon. Of course, sites such as Amazon, Netflix or Yelp don’t depend only on the star-rating system; they also want to provide supposedly qualitative digital word of mouth by providing comment sections for the user.  Ironically, such attempts at qualitative digital word of mouth also fail since comment sections often illustrate the absurdity and humor of anonymous viva voce. To see what I mean, check out this video.

Though silly, I think we should not look past the upsetting nature of the original critic’s message. The actual reviewer was practicing nothing short of reputation assassination; he provided an unjust assessment of a restaurant based upon what most people would consider absurd standards. Nonetheless, in the quantitative realm, his ridiculous review carries the same weight as a fair critique of  the restaurant.  Such anonymous, word of mouth ‘hit and runs’ are standard fare today. Arguably the oddest example of such smear tactics occurred in England in 2010, when a famous historian of Russia named Orlando Figes anonymously wrote a vicious critique of his fellow historian Robert Conquest’s most recent work.  Figes did this in an attempt to stop consumers from buying Conquest’s work.  By doing this, Figes illustrated the absurd downside of digital viva voce.  The anonymous critic now holds a position of far-reaching power, and that power is corrupting.

  1. Lee Lazar says:

    As someone who relies on word of mouth to generate business, I have to say that I am beholden to the quality and reliability of my sources, not the language or fervor used to generate opportunity. I actually elected to cook myself a spinach and onion omelette after seen Professor Jenny Jocks Stelzer’s post of your family’s delicious breakfast this morning! Not exactly a direct word-of-mouth recommendation, more of a subliminal “you know you want a yummy breakfast like this too” ad.

    But in the internet word this “voto voce on steroids” has completely run amok using the shield of anonymity. Business owners get their Facebook pages up and running, manufacture “likes” to generate a following, and then have their close friends write phony reviews. Politcal sites are at liberty to fabricate conclusions based on wild speculation and outright untruths and spew their conspiracy theories into the aether. Hotel reviews are impossible to take on face value because the good ones give little information and the scathing negative ones are almost always outliers. I could go on all day…

    Thanks for posting on this holiday morning.

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