Becoming Better Users of Online Information

Shira Ovide reporting for The New York Times:

This week, Amazon acknowledged reality: It has a problem with bogus reviews.

The trouble is that Amazon pointed blame at almost everyone involved in untrustworthy ratings, and not nearly enough at the company itself. Amazon criticized Facebook, but it didn’t recognize that the two companies share an underlying problem that risks eroding people’s confidence in their services: an inability to effectively police their sprawling websites.

Learning from the masses is a promise of the digital age that hasn’t panned out. It can be wonderful to evaluate others’ feedback before we buy a product, book a hotel or see a doctor. But it’s so common and lucrative for companies and services to pay for or otherwise manipulate ratings on all sorts of websites that it’s hard to trust anything we see.

It’s a gross exaggeration to say learning from the masses hasn’t panned out. Overall, online product reviews — uneven as they are — have made us much more informed shoppers. They’re certainly better than the alternatives that existed before the internet. (Mostly: nothing.)

But as with much so much of what we read online, we must develop some skepticism. If a system can be gamed — and if humans have incentives to do so — then the system will be gamed. As a result, we must take what we read as one of several inputs when deciding.

Can platforms improve the accuracy of the information in their systems? Of course they can. As the article notes, Amazon is responding to curtail manipulated reviews and ratings. But we, too, can become better users of such information by honing our online B.S. detection skills.

Amazon’s Open Secret – The New York Times