HARRINGTON: Read the review

Reviews and recommendations can push us to explore new topics

A write-up on theCourseForum claimed the work-heavy politics class was “rewarding;” an Amazon review called the Haitian history book “indispensable”; and the list of “115 Things to Do Before We Graduate” recommended indulging in Spudnuts, Carter Mountain apples and the “Slop Bucket.” Thus, I enrolled in the class, read the book and ate the local favorites.

If these actions were not academic or exercising Virginia pride, pursuing them simply because they are well-liked would be dismissed as “basic.” Last week, my fellow columnist Hasan Khan shared a fear that our generation is unwittingly limiting our scope wholesale, as we opt for critic-approved and user-favored media due to the ubiquity of online reviews. To him, reviews prevent the “genuine discovery of media,” as we lose sight of the “delicate balance of individuality and patience” he considers critical. I disagree that online reviews are a force to increase our homogeneity: rather, they are a critical tool by which we can test new genres and experiences.

A first introduction to a genre or experience is decisive: it can become the origin for further exploration, or it can repel you from an entire category of things. It is easy to broadly reject nonfiction books, entire academic departments or Mom-and-Pop shops if you have not yet formed a nuanced view of them. Therefore, an introduction to a type of media or activity via the best possible representation of the medium is important: whether you end up finding something you love, it determines your willingness to explore more. Unlike Khan, I trust myself less to choose a quality piece that will give me an enjoyable first impression than I trust experts or public success.

A glowing consumer review or expert recommendation also impacts the way you confront your introduction to a new genre or experience. People often value outside advice over that of people they know well. This occurs regardless of the outsider’s expertise: as Mark Twain said, “An expert is an ordinary fellow from another town.” Millennials’ shopping habits makes them particularly susceptible to this inclination: in a 2011 Bazaarvoice survey of consumer-driven trends, 51 percent of millennials said consumer opinions on company websites influence their purchase decisions more than recommendations from friends. For Baby Boomers, that figure was only 34 percent. With a trusted endorsement, you can feel more comfortable that the media or experience you are about to consume is worthwhile. In situations where the book initially seems dull or the class too difficult, knowing that others recommended it may be enough incentive for you to press on.

Khan’s column rightfully identified that websites feed us more of what we already like, as they aim to please. It feels good to be spoiled: a search of “student health” on Google brings me to the Elson Student Health Center despite the generic keyword. Yet it is disconcerting that Netflix, Pandora and Google’s knowledge of my preferences drives what they display for me. I do not need to actively limit my scope; the websites do it for me. For this reason, it is much more important in this data- and algorithm-driven age to explicitly seek out new things and explore new fields.

While exploring new media based on reviews may not seem “genuine” to Khan, the fact that websites have made us accustomed to the types of media we like causes our exploration of new media to be understandably hesitant. It is genuine for a consumer to admit he wants outside reassurance that the something new could be worthwhile, as he could much more easily stick to the genres he already knows he enjoys. While less romantic than library shelf browsing, caution about spending time and energy on the unknown is natural. Finishing the book only because you’ve been told it’s worth it — not due to reverence for the author — is authentically human.

So when seeking your first coffee fix or trying your hand at baking, I think you are best off choosing the customer favorite Pumpkin Spice Latte or the brownie recipe with the highest online rating. While the “individuality and patience” of discovering new things is often enjoyable and worthwhile, reviews and recommendations enable you to get started off on the right foot so you can feel comfortable exploring more.

Elaine Harrington is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at e.harrington@cavalierdaily.com.

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