How I Became Obsessed With Reading Online Reviews

Designed by Anna Jay.
I thought it would be a simple purchase. A heater and some hard wax beads so I could wax my bikini line and armpits at home during lockdown. Hours later, I felt no closer to making a decision.
On one waxing brand’s Amazon page, a reviewer – a German woman whose post I read in translation – had submitted a diagram of the best way to apply wax for the optimal self-administered Brazilian
"It’s a delicate process which has taken me a few time [sic] to perfect..." 
The diagram was a simple line drawing of a female crotch with explanatory arrows. I took a moment to absorb this information. She’d given the wax just three out of five stars "because the strips broke often and I was forced to repeat areas". 
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Another woman, Antea (review title: "meh") had written: "Worked on my under pit but not on legs." 
Another, Alice (review title: "stubbly") said: "It was good wax and did it’s [sic] job apart from on my bikini line where it just broke the hair and I was left all stubbly." 

The world was closing down around us and I was hooked on reviews. Each one was a little life-fire burning in the vast emptiness of cyberspace. Each review represented another person with hopes and dreams. 

These reviews had been posted from March onwards and, while I decided that this was not the wax for me, I did feel a rush of love for these pioneering women who’d tried and tested before me. The world was closing down around us and I was hooked on reviews. Each one was a little life-fire burning in the vast emptiness of cyberspace. Each review represented another person with hopes and dreams (and a desire for smooth under pits). 
Twenty-eight-year-old theatre manager Leanne has found herself similarly drawn to these beacons in the descending darkness of coronavirus
"I was buying a skipping rope recently," she tells me. "I always check reviews just to make sure the seller seems legit but this time I found myself reading for hours. I guess I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands, most of which I’d spent worrying about my life and my job – so this was a welcome distraction. And once you start, they really suck you in."  
"One person was like, 'It’s just not man enough, I want to be able to go hard on this' – it was someone who was trying to lose weight in lockdown by skipping every day. Another person compared it to the skipping ropes they’d used as a child. The more I read, the more confused I felt about whether this was the right rope for me. And the more confused I got, the more reviews I read. Eventually I had to step away," she continues.  
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In 2015 the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) estimated that reviews influenced £23 billion worth of consumer spending. In fact, reviews have become such an important part of our consumer experience that in May of this year the CMA launched an investigation into misleading or fake reviews on several major websites.  

In 2015 the Competition and Markets Authority estimated that reviews influenced £23 billion worth of consumer spending.

Announcing the investigation, Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA, said: "During lockdown, we’re more dependent than ever on online shopping, so it’s really important that the online reviews we read are genuine opinions." 
Twenty-seven-year-old Ella agrees. She says that since she was furloughed from her job as a product manager in the aviation industry, she’s spent "countless hours" reading Amazon and Trustpilot reviews. 
"Because money is more of a worry now, it feels extra important that what I’m getting is exactly the right product for me," she explains. "I like to cross-reference reviews from different sites to try and eliminate the risk that I’m getting a fake opinion." 
At the start of the pandemic Ella’s grandmother sadly passed away. "That, and then all this stuff with my job…" she says, pausing thoughtfully. "I know spending two hours reading reviews for a phone stand sounds ridiculous, but it feels like there’s very little else in my life that I can control right now."
Leanne went back to her search for the perfect skipping rope a day after stepping out of her online review scroll hole. "What I found funny," she says, "is the fact that for some people, this was clearly an outlet. Someone started their skipping rope review, 'I’d like to give this the space it deserves...' Once you start reading them you see that it’s a really compelling mix of tragedy and comedy. Reviews hold up a mirror to our lives in all their glorious mundanity and there’s something really comforting about that, like we're all in this together." 
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While the theatre that she manages is shut, Leanne has started writing a play about prolific reviewers. "It’ll explore themes of consumerism and how we define ourselves both through the things we buy and also through how we communicate our consumer habits to the world. It’s a comedy."

Because money is more of a worry now, it feels extra important that I'm getting the right product. I like to cross-reference reviews from different sites to try and eliminate the risk that I'm getting a fake opinion. 

ella, 27
Emma is a 32-year-old markets analyst (and also my housemate). She, too, is addicted to reviews. She recently fell down a reviews rabbit hole, chasing the perfect moisturiser. "I was literally up until 4am reading about body creams," she said one morning when I asked why she was so tired. 
"The thing I found funniest was that sometimes the one-star reviewers would pick up on something the five-star people said and argue with that point specifically, and vice versa. I got completely sucked in by these mundane back-and-forths between the different factions." In the end she bought eight different moisturisers. 
"I think what I was looking for when I was reading the reviews was confirmation that I was making the right decision," she says. "Most of the time I’d already semi-decided on a product, so reading the positive reviews just made me feel good about my purchase."  
"Reading reviews for me is more about confirmation bias," she concludes.  
Lots of research has been done into the impact of reviews on sellers; most of us know, for instance, that the negative impact on sales of a bad review is greater than the positive impact of a good review. But very few studies have explored the impact that reviews have on consumers. It’s generally accepted that we read reviews from a neutral starting point and find them all equally helpful. 
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One such study, though, was conducted at the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences in Maryland, USA in 2016. The authors found that consumers have "a tendency to prefer information that confirms their initial beliefs" – it is, as Emma put it, 'confirmation bias'. Basically, we want to feel supported in even our most inconsequential decisions – an emotional tick which seems to have taken on greater significance in these unprecedented times. 
After spending a week trawling reviews of different types of hard wax, a reviewer named Annie* ultimately swayed me. She delved into the wax’s properties with such eye-watering specificity that I felt like my under pits were smooth just from reading. 

I was up until 4am reading about body creams. Sometimes the one-star reviewers would pick up on something the five-star people said and argue. I got completely sucked in.

Emma, 32
When I clicked on Annie's profile I found that she’d reviewed more than 400 products since joining Amazon. In the past month alone she’d written 202 words about a three-metre phone cable, 321 words about a combination lock, 521 words about a wire-free yoga bra and a bracing 233 words about a mug with a print of a lion on it, which included a section on rim thickness as well as the quality of the print before and after a session in the dishwasher. My main question was: why? 
"I try to approach everything I do with authenticity and passion," she told me via email. "In these uncertain times, I believe it’s not enough to sit back and allow good things to happen around you. I want to actively do good in the world. I volunteer and donate to charity – that’s part of my religion – but I want to bring that spirit to every area of my life. And that includes when I make purchases."
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But it’s not just about helping others. "Two years ago I went through a lengthy legal process after my ex-partner started stalking me. He is now in prison but that whole thing robbed five years of my life, and in that time I came to rely on delivered goods when I was too afraid to leave the house. Countless times I received something that just didn't live up to my expectations and every time, on top of everything else, it took a very real emotional toll on me. I spend about 20 minutes writing my reviews, I try to be as specific as possible and I keep the thought of my own emotional state (as was) in the back of my mind. If I can take just a little stress away from someone, then it is worth it."
Echoing Emma’s sentiment, she signs off: "With so much stuff in the world, there's comfort in being reassured that you're making the right decision."
Reviews are like tiny human stitches holding together the fabric of our increasingly online world. Mundane, funny, tragic, helpful, silly – they are all of human life, reflected back at us.
*Not her real name