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Online Hams, With a Side of Wry: How Product Reviews Became Performance Art

April 22, 2015
by Chelsea Leu

When news broke last December that a sick Disneyland visitor sparked an outbreak of measles, opponents of the anti-vaccination movement took to Twitter and Facebook in outrage. But as the disease laid low more than a hundred people in seven states, some turned instead to Amazon. Online shoppers left over a thousand negative reviews for Melanie’s Marvelous Measles, a children’s book apparently aiming “to educate children on the benefits of having measles.”

The reviews are also studies in droll social commentary:

“As a carpenter who specializes in itty bitty coffins I can’t say enough good things about this book.”

“The way I see it, if they go blind or die, it was meant to be. No more silly, man-made interference with nature for my family!”

Even Death himself deigned to leave a five-star review: “Conquest, War, Famine, and I just don’t have the energy like we used to during the Middle Ages. …with [author] Stephanie Messenger, we don’t have to do as much work. Thanks Stephanie!”

The Internet’s vast array of consumer product pages abounds with gems of humor, irony, social commentary and even entire fictional narratives, scribbled by ordinary consumers who seemingly wanted to make things a little funnier for the rest of us. Even Amazon has compiled its own top ten lists of funny reviews—a rare corporate nod to a decidedly homegrown phenomenon.

But there’s more at work here as well. “The Internet provides an audience, and visibility of something that deserves ridicule on a public platform,” says Josh Jackson, a lecturer on media studies at UC Berkeley. “So it’s an elaborate form of play—users write reviews to expose and ridicule wrongs, but also to amuse themselves and others.”

It’s the Alan Dundes prin­ciple: Faced with a blank, im­per­son­al space (the walls of a bath­room stall, or, these days, an empty text box on a cor­por­ate webpage), people will in­dulge the very hu­man urge to cre­ate.

No kidding. Many satirical reviewers tackle contentious topics, but do so obliquely—say, by writing a five star review for a product that’s roundly abhorred. Such reviews draw attention to the problem in a way that’s much more potent than an impassioned diatribe written in all caps. Take the reviews for a Bic ballpoint pen specially advertised “for her,” a marketing strategy that drew snark for its casual sexism: “Since I’ve begun using these pens,” one reviewer wrote, “men have found me more attractive and approachable. It has given me soft skin and manageable hair and it has really given me the self-esteem I needed to start a book club and flirt with the bag-boy at my local market.” A plastic toy model of a security checkpoint spurred another reviewer to deliver a withering critique of homeland security: “The best thing about this product is that it teaches kids about the realities of living in a high-surveillance society…I think I’ll get [my son] the Playmobil Abu-Ghraib Interrogation Set instead (it comes with a cute little memo from George Bush).”

But it’s not just hot-button issues that have Internet users spilling virtual ink. The web is full of useless things for sale—the excesses of a consumer society that produces items like, say, a book called How to Avoid Huge Ships, or a rugged land cruiser/tank (top speed 40 mph), or Swiss Army knives that perform far, far too many functions. Only on the Internet do high-definition TVs sit next to jugs of wolf urine on the shelves of Amazon’s virtual emporium, and both are just a few clicks away. It’s an absurd, almost surreal arrangement. So the reviews, with their irony and subtle humor (and just a hint of Kafkaesque resignation?), are comfortingly human voices that essentially broadcast this message: I recognize just how ridiculous all of this is.

“It is day 87 and the horses have accepted me as one of their own,” a review for a latex horse head mask on Amazon reads. “I have grown to understand and respect their gentle ways.” Another reviewer, for a cookbook entitled “Microwave for One”, writes in jest (one hopes): “It used to be that I got home from work and the only thing I’d want to put in my mouth was the cold barrel of my grandfather’s shotgun. Then I discovered Sonia Allison’s Chicken Tetrazzini, and now there are two things.” A third, reviewing a tin of uranium ore, simply wrote, “I purchased this product 4.47 billion years ago and when I opened it today, it was half empty.”

“I tried the ba­nana slicer and found it un­ac­cept­able. As shown in the pic­ture, the slicer is curved from left to right. All of my ba­na­nas are bent the oth­er way.”

Even the most mundane items are subject to wry recasting and fictional narratives. One reviewer complained that a Spalding basketball was defective because “nearly every time I throw the ball with varying degrees of arc, it makes a loud, discordant, reverberating sound against the rim and fails to adequately follow a path through the cylindrical orifice.” Another disgruntled basketball fan left a one-star review for the King James Bible: “Despite what the title may lead you to believe, this book has absolutely nothing to do with Lebron James. Disappointed.” A banana slicer on Amazon garnered a whole host of silly reviews, including a 1,200 word noir story narrated by “Johnny Flynn, Private Slicer,” and this succinctly brilliant comment: “I tried the banana slicer and found it unacceptable. As shown in the picture, the slicer is curved from left to right. All of my bananas are bent the other way.”

What possesses online shoppers to craft such product evaluations? After all, it takes time to concoct a good joke, and people certainly aren’t dashing these reviews off casually—especially not the writer of a seriously impressive spoof of Poe’s “The Raven” about a one gallon jug of Tuscan whole milk. (One imagines the reviewer sitting at the computer for hours in the throes of poetic inspiration, trying desperately to come up with a word that rhymes with “milky.”) A tiny sample from the opus:

“Once upon a mid-day sunny, while I savored Nuts ‘N Honey,
With my Tuscan Whole Milk, 1 gal, 128 fl. oz., I swore
As I went on with my lapping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at the icebox door.
‘Bad condensor, that,’ I muttered, ‘vibrating the icebox door –
Only this, and nothing more.”

Perhaps all these reviews are but the most recent iteration of a phenomenon studied by the late, legendary Berkeley folklorist Alan Dundes, an inveterate collector of jokes, tales, and graffiti. Dundes noticed the surprising creativity of the graffiti in Berkeley campus restrooms and, in a 1966 paper, set forth his theory on why people were writing this “latrinalia.” It also happens to be a pretty compelling theory for why people write funny reviews—like graffiti, online reviews are scrawled in spaces that are both semi-public and impersonal, but ripe for ironic, self-aware humor. Dundes’s argument is simply this: that faced with a blank, impersonal space (the walls of a bathroom stall, or an empty text box on a corporate webpage), people will indulge the very human urge to create—to “make shit up,” as it were.

(Online product reviews don’t shy away from the scatological, either. Case in point: the slew of horrifyingly hilarious reviews of Haribo sugar free gummy bears, which seem to suggest the bears induce severe gastrointestinal distress in everyone who consumes them.)

Maybe Dundes was onto something when he attributed the urge to write bathroom graffiti to a human “desire to make one’s mark or to leave something behind for posterity,” emphasis his. But these product reviews seem deeply human in another way. Jackson, too, notes that the reviews are shaped by their corporate setting, but he also points out that they’re slightly subversive. “Yelp’s interface is based on users filling spaces with content,” he says. “On Yelp, people will tell obviously fabricated stories rather than spew venom. They’re playing along with the corporate product, and in doing so, highlighting its absurdity.”

In other words, the reviews are not merely the results of irrepressible human creativity, but also the fruits of good old-fashioned contrarianism. Sure, given the omnipresence of companies like Amazon and Yelp, we’ll write the reviews they want us to write. But sometimes, we’re going to put poop jokes in them.

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