Revenge of the Amateur


Even literary masters get savaged via social media.

The problem with crowds is that they sometimes turn into mobs.  And in the prophetic words of Black Sabbath’s “The Mob Rules”:

“You’ve nothing to say
They’re breaking away
If you listen to fools…
The Mob Rules
The Mob Rules”

Some people would argue that listening to any crowd – whether a mob or not – is foolish.  I’m not one of those people.  Crowds can sometimes be wise – but only sometimes – and you need to sort through the data logically.

One of the ways to use crowds well is in reviewing products and services, which is why services like TripAdvisor (former client), Yelp, and other user-generated review sites have been so successful.

Let’s face the facts.  If 50 people give a restaurant bad reviews – then it is highly likely that it is a bad restaurant.

That’s why amateur user reviews in aggregate are so valuable.  You can judge the quality of a restaurant, shop, garage, plumber, doctor or school based on the opinions of many people.

But user reviews from amateurs are less reliable when there are less of them.  When 50 people give a dry cleaner poor reviews for service you can be reasonably certain of the information. But having only one or two poor reviews for the same dry cleaner is not as trustworthy.  Perhaps they had a bad experience at a place that generally has good service.  Or maybe they simply work for the competition.

There’s no way to accurately judge the quality of individual amateurs on user-review sites.  It’s the aggregate that makes the information valuable.

Case in point: Amazon.com’s book reviews.

Dive deeply on any of individual reviews and you can get some rather bizarre – and unintentional humorous reviews.  People with little to no education in literary criticism savaging the greatest works in history using ungrammatical sentences and unstructured thinking.  It’s a lot of fun to read.

Here are some of my favorite excerpts of amateurs reviewing some of the greatest literary classics (be warned – some of these are cringe worthy):

“A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens

  • “Tale of Two Cities overall is a poorly written book. Charles Dickens way [sic] too much time adding detail and excess bagage [sic] to the story. However, I do understand that Dickens wrote this book in the 1800s, when books were too expensive for most people to afford. Dickens wrote this story in different segments. Wanting to keep the people interested, Dickens added many details and cliffhangers to the book.” (Reviewed by Sarah AD)
  • “Charles Dickens, as we all know, was paid by the word to write A Tale of Two Cities. This is what holds this book back from getting the respect and popularity it truly deserves. The wordiness and the over-the-top, verbose sentences bring the novel down. Despite the excessive vocabulary, Dickens takes a relatively neutral position in his portrait of the revolution. He depicts both sides of the revolution in a similarly negative light. (Review by J. Matlock)

“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen

  • “It ultimately boils down to some sisters trying to marry (up, for the most part) in the world. I guess, if I try real hard, I can see some people imagining themselves in the scenes and enjoying the idea of living in the same town, wearing the same clothes, going to the same events, etc., but nothing really ever happens. It just goes on and on and on, only to lead this sister ending up [sic] with that guy, this sister ending up with that guy, etc.” (Review by Adam Appleby)
  • “I am so disappointed. Being a fan of classic literature I was looking forward to reading Pride & Prejudice. But what I got was moderately-well written chick lit. Think of Pride and Prejudice as the Bridgit Jones of the 18th Century.  The story-line is predictable – you know how the whole novel is going to play out after the first couple of pages. The only thing that kept me going was the hope that there would be some little twist. Maybe Jane would end up with Darcy, or something a little more interesting. Unfortunately not.  I honestly think Austin was writing a parody of women. The only concern of every female character in the book is to get married to a rich, well-to-do gentleman.” (Review By Ric G)

“A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway

  • “Bad reading; the descriptions are okay, but the characters stink. The heroine doesn’t seem lovable and great, she’s crazy and stupid. It’s bad. The drawing on the cover is as good as it gets.” (Review by A Customer)
  • “A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway is a dreadfully boring novel. The characters Catherine and Frederick, are mindless nits wrapped up in their love affair, while enlisted in World War I. I thought the book lacked a single intelligent thought throughout its contents.” (Review by Justine)

“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

  • “The Great Gatsby is an extremely uninteresting, boring book. It has no suspense, the characters are dull, and the whole book in general lacks quality. The verbal and lexical extemporaneuity [sic] of certain paragraphs in the book makes it an even more confusing book to follow. If you’re looking for a book to read, the Great Gatsby is not it. If you consider yourself an intellectual, I suggest reading Pedro Paramo (I forget the author) or Karl Marx’s Das Kapital for some stimulation. Better yet, write your own damn book and amuse yourself with whatever it is you come up with.” (Review by A Customer)
  • “This book is amateurish, meek, and clumsy. Where is the elegant prose that other reviews go on about? The most I can say about this book is that it ends correctly, though somewhat predictably. For marginally better books on the same era, try PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves or Blandings Castle series. They may not be quite as serious, but that can be a good thing.” (Review by A Customer)

“To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf

  • “This one is even worse than the others, because it is basically an autobiography of this lunatic, arrogant woman. Want proof she’s an arrogant snob? She once claimed that James Joyce was “illiterate and underbred”. [sic] James Joyce! And as for her lunacy, how many times did she try to kill herself? 4 or 5 times? And the worst part is, she kept failing! What a loser! She finally had to fill her pockets with rocks and walk into a river to finish the job! And yet somehow, people keep exhaulting [sic] her as this great tortured artist, as if being out of your mind insane automatically makes your writing great. It doesn’t. She sucks.” (Review by Jonathan C. Pike)

Links:

Why Amateur Critics Have Won

Lyrics to Black Sabbath’s “The Mob Rules”

A Tale of Two Cities on Amazon.com

Pride and Prejudice on Amazon.com

A Farewell to Arms on Amazon.com

The Great Gatsby on Amazon.com

To the Lighthouse on Amazon.com

Photo by Austinevan (via Flickr)

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