Let’s say I’m craving a bag of Hostess donettes, but I don’t have enough pep to drive all the way to Walmart. A good alternative is to order them from Amazon, where everything I could ever want or need is one click away. I’m a circumspect e-shopper, however, and I consult the customer reviews before committing to my purchase. I’m glad I do. “If you did a blind taste test,” one customer notes, “you would have no idea what they were.” Another reports, “They were not chocolate they were white.” Still another writes, “There is no way these are safe if they make a person’s eyes water. The formaldehyde odor and chemical taste is like a toxic gas.” Rick laments, “I wasn’t thinking and ate pretty much the whole bag; later that night I felt like I was dying since they didn’t break down quick.”
So maybe I’ll heed Amazon’s recommendation and buy this eighteen-ounce oval ceramic SpongeBob SquarePants mug instead. I can drink CVS cola out of it while I plot my next move. “It is a little unusual at first drinking from the oval shape,” writes Chris, “… but a little practice builds confidence.” That’s good—the shape was my main concern—but thank heavens I decide to read a few more. JenCarp warns: “What they fail to tell you is that when you receive the mug, there is a sticker saying it contains chemicals that can cause reproductive issues.”
Customers who took a chance on that mug also bought a SpongeBob SquarePants Adult Comfy Throw with Sleeves, and they were especially satisfied. Not one reviewer gave this item fewer than three stars. Dylan hiller (no capital) writes, “great material, very warm and big enough for any person. I didn’t purchase it for myself but I tried it on and it was big enough for me and I’m 6 foot 4 and 350 pounds.” This sounds like a nice way to stay cozy as I shop for a non-toxic mug and edible donuts.
Customer reviews are an essential part of an e-commerce platform, and it’s true that they can be very helpful. But you don’t always get a straight-shooter like Dylan hiller or JenCarp, and there are big problems with this system. Many reviewers don’t understand what a review is for. They use the space to insult the seller or the post office, to complain about some aspect of the website experience, to discuss a different item, or to register sadness about an item’s price. Literacy issues often make reviews unintelligible. More generally, though, and maybe more importantly, there’s the anonymity problem. Just as you don’t know what you’re getting from the seller, you don’t know what you’re getting with these reviewers either. You don’t know whether they’re people with whom you’d agree on the fundamental things. Maybe I’m enticed by Truthsayer’s guileless review of Everybody Loves Raymond, Season Five—“Season 5 was the absolute best of all the Seasons! No Bad shows in this set!”—but I’ll see this endorsement in a different light when I click through to this person’s review of National Lampoons Christmas Vacation (Special Edition). “The fact that there are so many good reviews on it is a sign of the times!! No wonder there are so many murders, crimes and even ISIS with this kind of tripe being shown to our children…”
Rage, at least, is an understandable motive for writing a review, and if Truthsayer has discovered the ideological wellspring of ISIS, that’s a discovery worth communicating. Astonished delight is understandable as well. But why do so many people feel moved to post tepid or equivocal reviews? Who writes a three-star review of Beistle’s “Mom to Be” sash that reads simply: “Average looking sash.” Or this three-star review of Ovente’s 1.5 Liter Cordless Electric Kettle: “Does anyone knows what are those dots? Is it lust or what? Except those dots, it works fine. But it looks not okay especially when I can see those dots through the glass.” The Pink Princess’s three-star review of Tetris Blitz reads: “I do not even remember ordering this item and have never played it. But we all love Tetris don’t we?”
Lots of people write product reviews compulsively, in a desultory manner that suggests obligation. Some people write hundreds every year, and reveal a shocking amount of personal information. A few minutes of reading and I know that “habblie,” who lives in California, is 5’ 7” (or 5’ 8”, depending on the day) and 155 pounds. She’s “a big German girl.” She likes jazz dance. She’s allergic to nickel and has sensitive teeth. She drives a Kia Soul. She always makes a double batch of pancakes and freezes half, because they’re easy to thaw in the toaster. She has an eight-year-old son who loves Minecraft fan fiction; a six-year-old son who’s lactose intolerant, has eczema, and wears a night guard because he grinds his teeth; and a five-year-old daughter who’s a little smaller than average. She runs a dog training boot camp with 900 square feet of artificial grass, and odor is a problem. Her own scent is Juniper Breeze, from Bath and Body Works. She developed a “moustache shaped dark area” on her upper lip, but Topiclear Number One Skin Lightening Cream took care of it. She makes cold brew coffee by soaking it in a large bowl and straining it through paper towels. She tried to use a Primula Cold Brew Coffee Maker, but the results were disappointing: “To be honest, I felt relief when I broke it. I only recommend buying this if you wish to break the heart of some coffee lover out there with false hope and broken promises.”
She bought a personal alarm after being harassed by a group of teenage boys. She called the police, but the cop thought she was exaggerating.
I know all of this, but what kind of information is it? Her reviews are not carefully-considered personal statements, they are not oriented toward her friends or followers, they don’t refer to other aspects of Internet culture. They are addressed to the void, and they seem to issue from a kind of void as well. If I actually knew her, I’d have a top-down way of organizing my impressions; the reviews would confirm or confound the sense I had of her. Getting to know her this way, however, means that I have no way to organize the details. The details themselves are all I have. It’s like seeing only the houses and trees in a landscape, but never the landscape itself, never the sky or the earth or the mountains.
Gary W. Crane is as committed to his product reviews as habblie is, but he’s less self-aware and less careful with his typing, so the impression of incoherence is more striking. Is he a misogynist, for example? He writes continually about women’s bodies: “Jane Fonda looks like she had just finished one of her workout DVDs but NO you don’t see hardly any her body.” “Whomever the lady is with the white and black paint on really makes this movie watchable.” “Miss Lively fills out a bikini very nicely.” He bought “Farmer’s Daughter” and “Fit Women Australia” calendars. And yet he’s not only, or not always, a lascivious creep. He’s full of admiration for talented actresses, and he remarks, in his review of Better than Chocolate, “Its nice to see a movie with mostly women in it and standing up for each other in a realistic way.” His review of Pure Nude Yoga is especially confounding. It begins, “I found this DVD very relaxing. I also see that this lady does NOT eat at fast food places. I feel that the action in the movie can be followed once you have watched it a couple of times. But where to do this in that you can work on a all over tan but after you put on lotions then bug spray. I do not think this is good to do in the sand since some of that may fall into your face…”
The more I learn about him, the fuzzier the picture gets. He likes his #1 Liquid Brain Supplement + Energy Drink: “I feel that it works after about a half an hour…” He loves his Trilobite fossil, which he keeps in a pistol display case. He’s an advocate of legal marijuana and he bought two pot-leaf hats, a bracelet, and a pendant for himself, as well as more pot-leaf stuff for a woman. He uses “tanning pills.” He says that a good use of surveillance drones would be to film St. Patrick’s day parades and broadcast them to people who are housebound. He’s a 9/11 conspiracy-theory guy, and he enjoyed a book called Who Built the Moon?, another called Somebody Else is on the Moon, and yet another called Our Mysterious Spaceship Moon. “Read this book and you can be sure the US Government won’t tell you that the Earth has a floating spacecraft floating around there. The Hindus and the Zulu people both remember a time when there WAS NO MOON rotating the Earth.”
On December 12, 2016, he reviewed a red “Make America Great Again” hat. “Now that I have it I will have to be concerned about the losers that just can’t accept losing.. Just deal with it” (five stars). For a moment, I have the sense that I can fit Gary W. Crane into a cubby-hole, and yet, on November 22, when his enthusiasm ought to have been even greater, he had reviewed another red “Make America Great Again” hat. “I made a mistake in buying this hat in that I thought it was made in America. IT IS NOT !!!!! But it does have the message that I was looking for so I am keeping it but may not wear it as much as I would have a made in America hat” (two stars).
This is hardly the testament of a rabid Trump-supporter. He doesn’t mention Trump at all. And the “message” he refers to is probably just some watery idea about American pride. His opinions are not obviously skewed by xenophobia, and although he bought a “Blue Lives Matter” sticker, a “Police Lives Matter” license plate, and a matching “Police Lives Matter” bracelet, he is unaware of the larger racial injustice and is preoccupied instead by fears about his own physical safety. As I gradually come to understand, he’s an old man, and he uses, or has used, a walker.
Of course, another way of saying it is that I end up liking Gary W. Crane, and wanting to believe that his opinions are not skewed by xenophobia. I want to understand his Trump-support as a geographical and historical accident.
What if he and I were to encounter one another in the real world? It might be a different story. If he were wearing his “Make America Great Again” hat and his “Police Lives Matter” bracelet, I’d be angry at him, and more than angry. In today’s charged political climate, I would feel hatred for this old guy. I wouldn’t know that he opposes any increase in military spending, and that for a while he was wearing a peace-sign belt buckle around his neck.
His review of Pride + Prejudice + Zombies reads: “Sorry to say you really don’t know who the good people are in this very unusual movie.”
It’s absurd to say that I know this man after reading a few hundred of his Amazon product reviews. His imperfect literacy distorts his voice and gives his writing a cartoonish flavor, and the variety of things he’s able to say is limited by the selection of products that occasion his reviews. But at the same time, I do know things about him that I wouldn’t know otherwise, and I see him with a wider lens.
Consider what these reviews really are. They are acts of communication that are conceived, composed, and transmitted in solitude; they are intended for people in the aggregate rather than for any particular person; they are composed without the expectation of a response; they are composed, I’ll bet, very rapidly and without any thought of revision. They are raw, unmediated glimpses, waxing and waning in intensity, unencumbered by the burden of consistency or the desire to present a coherent self to the world. I think of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (average rating: 3.2 stars), which consists mostly of footage shot by the subject himself, alone or almost alone in the Alaskan wilderness. He believes he’s making a movie and he is deliberate in his address to this presumptive audience, but he can’t keep his larger purpose in mind. He’s turned inward, talking to himself, muttering, reacting to minute changes in his environment, repeating cherished beliefs. The sludge of the unconscious comes to the surface.
So Amazon and Facebook and Twitter turn us all into grizzly men and women. I wonder if it was possible to see strangers in this way before the Internet existed. I wonder what it really means. We all have friends whose behavior on the Internet is odd, somehow not true to their real character, and we prefer to dismiss or ignore it. But the Internet is real, and the things people do on the Internet are real. When we see incongruities that make us cringe, we’re not seeing a wild distortion of our friend’s real self. We’re seeing another aspect of their complexity.
This complexity is what I see when I read Gary W. Crane’s product reviews. It is the kind of complexity I probably wouldn’t see if I met him in the real world. And so it seems plausible to say that the Internet, at least now and then, makes it possible to see strangers in something like the way we see the people we actually know—people who are not only one thing to us, but a limitless multitude of things; who do not have a “personality” for us so much as a universe of complex tendencies; who do not always have motives, and who retain the ability to do something surprisingly terrible or surprisingly beautiful at any moment.
Aaron Thier is the author of The Ghost Apple and Mr. Eternity. He is the recipient of a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a columnist for Lucky Peach, and a regular contributor to The Nation. He lives in western Massachusetts.