Donald Clarke: Beware the wisdom of the crowd

Paid critics may be pompous blowhards, but at least we’ve seen the bleeding film

The news from Tripadvisor this week was not so shocking. The company’s latest transparency report revealed that about a million reviews had last year been classified as fraudulent. It seems 67.1 per cent of those were blocked before actually making it on to the website. The report noted that it had removed paid reviews – presumably the result of businesses trying to artificially boost ratings – from about 131 countries. The website, first port of call for punters planning holidays, reported further removals for profane language and so forth. Tell me something I didn’t already suspect. The submitted fraudulent reviews, most of which never got past the moderation algorithm, added up to 3.6 per cent of the total posted. Sounds plausible.

Among the greatest changes in consumer habits over the past 20 years has been our increasing reliance on user reviews. We read what this bloke recommends on Goodreads. We avoid the records this lady hates on Amazon. We pay attention to amateur crackpots on movie sites rather than the distinguished film critics who lovingly craft tablets of stone in deserved elevation on Mount Olympus. Has democracy broken out? Or is this anarchy?

Fraud is a problem. So are hare-brained crankery and recreational obstreperousness. Earlier this summer, the Restaurants Association of Ireland wrote to Google and Facebook to complain about fake bookings and online reviews from people opposed to Covid regulations. Long before that started, hotel booking sites were clogged up with borderline-deranged rants from professional malcontents. Who is not tempted to click on the single one-star review for an otherwise ecstatically enjoyed hostelry? Did he really find a dead bat in the microwave? Is she seriously complaining about the noise of trams in a middle-European capital? Actors and writers often note that if they receive 99 raves and one brickbat, it is the single bad notice that sticks in the brain. The same is true when booking a hotel. Okay, the Hotel Splendide delighted Helga from Frankfurt with its excellent breakfast buffet. But what about the ceiling that fell in on Knut from Trondheim?

New democracy

The whinges never stop. What a crummy dump this is. These eggs looked like you laid them. The only gourmets you’ll find scavenging in this kitchen will be kamikaze ones. Your sort are never happy.


You can see what I have done here. The quotes above are all from Fawlty Towers. Not so long ago there was nowhere for the victims of such dreadfully run places to register discontent publicly. Opening up the online forums really does keep proprietors on their toes. It is harder to be Basil Fawlty in 2021.

Fans of the new democracy will observe that we have always listened to the advice of vague acquaintances down the pub. They will further note that … um … well, let’s say film critics, for want of a better example, tend to be pompous blowhards whose raves for My Camel Is Beneath The Yam Yam Tree are more about intellectual self-inflation than any sincere effort to offer recommendations for the readers’ weekends. The audience scores and reviews at Rotten Tomatoes are just an extended version of that saloon bar. Right? This is what honest audience members think, not pointy-headed film reviewers in moth-eaten polo-necks.

The problem, of course, is that mass anonymity and the online taste for herd-forming have encouraged contributors' worst instincts. Internet campaigns against a certain kind of Hollywood product have become an unhappy norm. Back in 2016, that year's Ghostbusters episode, which dared to include a largely female cast, had declined to an appalling 3.7/10 on the Internet Movie Database before it had even opened in the United States . You can disagree with the Rotten Tomatoes critics' score of 77 per cent (as it then was), but those reviewers do have to turn up at the press show and watch the bleeding film. They have to put their name beside their opinions. They may be idiot hipsters, but those idiot hipsters are held to account.

Pub toilet

The man in the pub is unlikely to pretend to have seen an allegedly “woke” title to persuade you against it. There is no public battle to be won here. It is not quite fair to compare online commentary with graffiti in the pub toilet – much of it is fair and balanced – but the method of posting is not dissimilar. The language is often as unsavoury. The spelling and syntax are sometimes as wayward. The ideological rants on book sites too often mirror those scrawled on the walls of urban underpasses.

It is amusing to recall how few saw this coming 20 years ago. Many publishers felt the opening-up of commentary would transform the internet into a modern version of the classical forum (hence the adoption of that word for online use). There was some of that. There was much benefit to hitherto underserved consumers. There was also a great deal of black noise. That’s the thing about democracy. That’s the thing about anarchy.