DURHAM, NC—According to a Duke University study released Monday, a majority of human interaction and communication now occurs within the context of consumer product reviews on the Internet.
"In our increasingly soulless, mechanized world, it might seem that we're becoming more disconnected from those around us," said Duke sociology professor and study head Dr. Allan Piersall. "Well, the happy news is, people are talking to their fellow humans as much as ever. Only, they're most likely weighing in on the new Ferris polarized sunglasses from Eddie Bauer or expressing dismay over the lack of cleanliness at the Boca Raton Holiday Inn."
From the tens of millions of consumer reviews posted on retail giants like Amazon.com to the more specialized message boards of Motorcycle.com and Macaddict.com, Piersall estimated that 80 percent of all human discourse now takes the form of product reviews on the web.
While some online reviewers give little more than basic pros-and-cons of a product or a one- to five-star rating, many use the write-ups as a vital means of self-expression, providing in-depth anecdotes about their own experiences with a particular product, or even their autobiography. On Amazon.com, some reviewers create deeply personal Listmania! lists, such as "The Best Kung Fu Movies Ever" or "Things You Absolutely Need To Survive Working In A Cubicle."
"Through these product reviews, in which we fulfill our collective desire to guide our fellow humans to good purchasing decisions, a sense of community emerges," Piersall said. "But just as important, a sense of self emerges. By publicly expressing our feelings about the Coleman Quickbed air mattress, we tell people not merely about this product, but about ourselves."
With reviews running the gamut from commentary on the Criterion Collection DVD of Fellini's 8 1/2 to the usefulness of a portable Weber propane gas grill versus the traditional full-size standup model, Piersall said that "once again, we are talking."
"Not only was I impressed by the large number of people expressing themselves through the written word, but I was amazed by the sophistication of the rhetoric," Piersall said. "In the same review, I saw examples of parallel construction, metaphor, and tautology, as well as standard debate devices like propositions of policy and use of evidence—all to support the argument that the Krups 872-42 Bravo Plus Espresso Maker is not worth the money."
Randy Apodaca, an Alameda, CA, assistant sales manager, recently logged onto Epinions.com to write a glowing review of the Sony SVR 2000 TiVo digital video recorder. To Piersall, more interesting than Apodaca's actual review is the fact that Apodaca had barely ever before expressed himself in a public forum.
"Though Apodaca wrote an article or two for his high-school newspaper in the late '70s, he all but dropped out of the national dialogue in the decades since," Piersall said. "Once, in 1986, he called in to a talk-radio show, but other than that, the world has had no way of knowing how Randy Apodaca felt on any issue. Until now."
Amanda Weis of Canton, OH, recently connected with a likeminded soul by reading reviews of the new Z.Z. Packer short-story collection on Barnes & Noble's web site.
"When firstname.lastname@example.org said Drinking Coffee Elsewhere was 'boring' and 'weird,' I could tell he wasn't my kind of person—unlike email@example.com," Weis said. "Mr. Bing Bing had all these great authors like Aleksandar Hemon on his list of faves, so I bought the book and some other stuff he suggested, too. I wonder if he's single."
Thanks to the online reviews, Piersall said he sees humankind moving in a positive direction.
"One of our basic human needs is to be heard," Piersall said. "It's hard to believe, but there was once a time when we were forced to seek out friends, family, and coworkers to fill this need. Today, things are much easier. We simply have to go to RateItAll.com."