The power of the internet is often the power of the crowd. Online review sites can be found for just about anything. Tripadvisor has been around for a long time, and I am a big fan. I first used it for a trip at the end of 2004. Our first TripAdvisor hotel was in Budapest, nicely located just behind the Opera House and a convenient metro stop, with modern furnishings and facilities for a very reasonable price. On that trip, we stayed in Tripadvisor hotels in Budapest, Prague and Berlin, all of them an unqualified success. I have two favourite TripAdvisor hotels. One in Cappadocia, a cave hotel in a tiny remote village that transported us into another time (yet we could use wi-fi on the terrace), and the other, a small Riad with only about six rooms in Marrakech. I continue to use Tripadvisor, but also (on the recommendation of a blogging friend) used Airbnb in Italy last year, both with success. To do my bit as part of the communities on these sites, I review extensively too. My policy is to be as honest and as balanced as possible. Over the years, I’ve learned some tricks about how to read the reviews, how to assess* the increasing number of fake reviews, whether they are experienced travellers, whether they can in fact be objective. And so my experiences in Tripadvisor hotels continue to be positive. So far so good.
But there’s one area where I realise – after a conversation the other day with my husband – I find online reviews frustrating. We’re both avid readers, and now mainly read e-books. I maintain a profile on Goodreads, and religiously record every book I read (well, every book I’m not ashamed of) and give it a rating. I have a number of friends who have similar enough reading tastes who also use Goodreads that means my “to-read” list is always much longer than I have time or money for. But I find reviews from strangers – and particularly star ratings – for books, in both Goodreads and on Amazon – much harder to assess. What do the star ratings mean? At least on Goodreads there is a popup label on each star rating (eg. two stars = it was ok, three stars = I liked it, four stars = I really liked it, etc). But in Amazon, we have to guess. Is two stars ok? Or does two stars mean “It was pretty bad, but not the worst.” Three stars in Goodreads is positive, but in Amazon it could simply mean “didn’t like it didn’t hate it.” I’m confused. So I rate sparingly on Amazon (but still stick to my policy to be unerringly and brutally honest).
But my main complaint is that I find it almost impossible to tell if a rave review for a book is written by someone with similar (eclectic) tastes, or by someone who would never read the books I read. (I’m trying hard to put this politely). My brain is always reminding me to “beware the lowest common denominator.” (Yes, I realise I just sounded like a snob). I find it hard to figure out if a book is the type I might occasionally dip into and enjoy, or in fact is representative of a genre I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. Unless a review is well written and succinct (rather than a high school or English Lit type book review), and perhaps references other books I might know, it is often too difficult to figure out whether it might be something I would enjoy. So I find myself relying on friends’ recommendations, or looking at book award listings, or reading authors I already know and like. I worry that my world of reading has narrowed.
And I wonder if this is a result of my change in reading habits, the fact I rarely (guilty gulp) frequent our town’s fabulous independent bookstore anymore for their recommendations, the fact I’m now reliant on the internet? But I’m not sure. There’s always something subjective about choosing a book – the title, the cover, the size and feel of the book, the quality of the pages and size of the typeface, and of course the price. So this hasn’t changed completely online – the availability (copyright sometimes restricts books in different parts of the world), the branding (categorisation in Amazon, book artwork/cover, etc), and the blurbs provided all influence me in the way that a real, paper book does. Recommendations from friends work the same, except that we could swap books more easily when we weren’t e-reading. And even that lowest-common-denominator factor was in play. The piles of books at the front of Borders/Whitcoulls are similar to the popular recommendation on Amazon. The award list books are more like the display entry to Unity Books. And in writing this post, I was finally motivated to Unity’s website, discovering their on-line reviews and recommendations. So maybe things haven’t changed that much after all?
* I intend posting about this separately sometime.