Opinion is everywhere. The shelves of WH Smith's are groaning under the weight of glossy magazines dedicated to reviews; whole review sections prolapse from the Sunday papers; endless TV reviews clog up the dailies. It is hardly surprising: in our fanatical consumer culture the review is bound to be a staple element of the printed media. What galls is that most professional criticism is so achingly predictable. You know what films the broadsheets will love or hate; you know the tabloids will love anything as long as they get an interview with the star in exchange. Meanwhile, reader opinion is banished to the shady cellar of the letters page, where it is hacked to pieces by bored subs digging for soundbites. Be in no doubt, the user is stuck firmly at the bottom of the critical food chain.
But not on the Internet. Here reviews written by average Joes, sitting at home expressing their honest subjective views, are much easier to find than 'professional' critique. And I'm not just referring to the millions of obscure personal homepages. Most of the major shopping sites include customer reviews as a major part of the service they provide. Giants such as Jungle (www.jungle.com) and Amazon (www.amazon.co.uk) don't bother to quote magazine or newspaper reviews of the books, CDs, DVDs and electronic equipment they sell. Nobody's interested. People just want to read the views of their fellow consumers.
And it's not difficult to see why. Shopping on-line is a solitary, even lonely experience, devoid of the familiar hustle and bustle of the high street. User reviews help to humanize the process: they create a sense of a community - something most websites desperately aspire to. David Gauntlett editor of the book Web.Studies (2001) and Lecturer in Communications Studies at the University of Leeds is a keen observer of this phenomenon: 'User reviews are an unusual feature of Capitalism because they're actually "good" for everybody concerned. On the one hand they are a cynical marketing device used by e-commerce sites to make you trust their integrity and part with your money. But at the same time, they are a genuinely useful facility for customers, harnessing the Internet's unique information-sharing abilities to positive effect.'
Reader reviews also make up an important part of information sites such as the excellent Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com). Again they create a much sought-after sense of vibrancy and community, but they're also present because, quite frankly, they're good. 'Film reviewers in the press are often tempted to make arty insights and show how clever and movie-literate they are', says Gauntlett, '... however, moviegoers (at www.imdb.com) or video buyers (at amazon.co.uk, say) will just tell you if you're going to have an enjoyable night or not. Which is actually what you want to know.' In addition, Internet reviewers are less likely to be self-conscious about what they like, and where they see comparisons. On IMDB recently there was a series of reviews intricately comparing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Star Wars, elsewhere one reviewer went to great lengths putting Charlie's Angels into context with all-female Hong Kong martial arts flicks. You simply don't get that kind of freestyle cultural analysis in the Daily Telegraph.
The user review is becoming such an important part of Internet culture that whole sites are now dedicated to the thoughts of amateur consumer critics. At www.eopinions.com you can read reviews on anything from speedboats, airlines and hotels to electronic shavers and Lego sets - all written by your fellow web surfers. It's an intriguing and addictive experience, ploughing through the categories, gaining an insight into what strangers expect from their new lawnmowers. Also, as most contributors are American, the site provides a unique perspective into the world's most rabid consumer society - if you so desire.
Above all, there's real feeling behind these reviews - on IMDB Gladiator gets torn apart as 'sick, twisted right-wing propaganda', on eopinions, a writer describes in orgasmic detail his first sip of Guinness: 'the horrors of the Budweiser world washed away with a single sip.' Gushing praise, unchecked vitriol: these are the emotions usually missing from the work of professional critics. Conveniently, the reason for these extremes and the reason why on-line buyers prefer the opinions of their peers seem to converge. When I asked William Flatau, managing director of the on-line videogame retailer Software First (www.softwarefirst.com), why he used customer reviews on the site, he simply replied 'someone who has spent money on a game is more entitled to a view than those that haven't'. That's what it comes down to in the end: in our fanatical consumer culture can you really be trusted to value something unless you've actually paid for it?