It's long been said that opinions are like bellybuttons—everyone has one. But until recently, not everyone had a bully pulpit from which to shout those opinions to the world at large. Now that pretty much every site on the Web is asking us for reviews, comments, thumbs-ups, Facebook "likes," Twitter retweets, and on and on and on, are we better informed decision-makers? Or is this review-heavy culture making us, well, stupid and lazy? That's what I got to thinking about after reading Chris Colin's Wired Essay, Rate This Article: What’s Wrong with the Culture of Critique. He says:
"Our ever more sophisticated arsenal of stars and thumbs will eventually serve to curtail serendipity, adventure, and idiotic floundering. But more immediate is the simple problem of contamination. When the voices of hundreds of strangers, or even just three shrill ones, enter our heads, a tiny but vital part of ourselves is diminished...There’s an essential freedom in being alone with one’s thoughts, oblivious to and unpolluted by anyone else’s. Diminish that aloneness and we start to doubt our own perspective."
To which I say, are we people or sheep?
It's just one more source of information to add to our decision-making arsenal, IMHO. And one that can be pretty useful. From my own little data point of one, we ate at a restaurant we earlier had dismissed as a possibility after reading reviews on Yelp that persuaded us that what was inside was far better than the outside. And it was fabulous. I regularly depend on reviews of nearly impossible-to-find adequately supportive clothing items (ladies, you know what I mean) to hear if they live up to their advertising when actually worn by human females in a gym. And when I bought my long longed-for outback hat, I scoured the reviews to find one that not only sounded and looked good, but whose reviewers were people who wore the hat doing the types of things I would wear it doing. You don't get that in a catalog. I'm sure there's no shortage of opinion spam, which research suggests we may not be so good at detecting, but overall I believe that people want to be helpful when they write reviews, and overall that's been my experience. I think it enhances, not diminishes, the decision-making experience.
We don't cede our decision-making to strangers by allowing their opinions to inform it. Reviews are just another factor to consider. And keep in mind that you may not agree with even the most august and respected of official reviewers (I actually read a glowing newspaper review of Cowboys & Aliens, which was one of the most boring movies I've seen in a long time). As President Reagan would say, "Trust, but verify."
What I worry more about is that, if we come to rely more and more on trusted review sources, we will in fact "curtail serendipity, adventure, and idiotic floundering," which is where I tend to find the most interesting things. But the flip side is that reviews may in fact encourage serendipity by pointing us toward things we otherwise might not have considered, as was the case with our Yelp-inspired restaurant choice.
While you may—and I hope you do!—invite attendees, speakers, and anyone else involved in your event to rate, review, and comment on your offerings, I'd hope everyone will use the opinions as just one more factor to consider, not an excuse to check their brains at the door.