Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s knowledge ecosystem.
When I interview someone for an article, I often send the audio recording to a small business that provides transcription services for an hourly fee. In the past, I’ve tried A.I. transcription software, which is cheaper. But it’s also much less accurate in my experience and jumbles words that are relatively common on my beat: Wikipedian becomes wee comedian.
So I’ve been using a human transcription service for several months and have been very pleased with the results. The business is always fast and reliable, which takes some stress off me and (theoretically) helps me write more. After we’d worked together a few months, the transcriptionist emailed and asked whether I would be willing to write an online review of her business. She explained that most of her customers found her through Yelp, Google reviews, or LinkedIn. I was happy to write the review, which was positive. But her note made me question why I hadn’t thought to write a review before receiving this polite nudge.
According to a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center, 82 percent of U.S. adults say they occasionally or always read online customer reviews before purchasing items for the first time. But the same study found that almost half of Americans were concerned that online reviews were biased or fake. Moreover, online reviews are written by a small minority of customers—about 1.5 percent, according a 2014 study in the Journal of Marketing Research. A report by ReviewTrackers last year showed online reviews are getting shorter, down from multiple paragraphs to roughly the size of a tweet. This trend is likely caused by increased mobile traffic. Still, the overall participation rate in writing online reviews remains low. The digital age has democratized the process of sharing evaluations with a wide audience, but what are the moral implications of choosing, or not, to contribute to that knowledge base?
Zoë A. Johnson King is a philosophy faculty fellow at New York University who specializes in the philosophy of action, ethics, and metaethics. I reached out to her with the question of whether someone should feel a moral obligation to write an online review, and if so, under what circumstances. Johnson King cautioned that her main goal was to provide the means for others to systematize their thoughts based on their circumstances, considering the best lens to analyze the issue and how to weigh various factors. “Deciding the final point of view—that part’s not my job!” Johnson King said.
Since I had already written the review for the transcription business, we instead considered the example of my favorite taco restaurant—a place that I frequent personally, for both dine-in and delivery, and the source of too much delicious sodium in my diet.
Out of the three comprehensive frameworks of normative ethics—the ethics of what one morally ought to do—we started with the duty-based or deontological approach. Under this model, I should consider whether I had some sort of special relationship with the restaurant that might create an obligation to write a review. At first, I could more easily see a duty relationship–based obligation with the transcription business than the taco place, but Johnson King brought up several other bases of relationship. For example, I’ve developed a rapport with the owner and some of the staff over the past few years. This could lead me to conclude that I owed them a good word.
Next, there was the consequentialist or utilitarian approach, which is the view that actions should be judged as right or wrong based on the extent they increase human well-being. Could my positive review help the business financially? On this point, I was somewhat surprised how the consequentialist perspective welcomed me to consider both self and public interest, which in this case lined up. “By all means take into account that you want the business to stay open,” Johnson King said. “But if you are going to exhibit a genuinely impartial concern for everyone in your community, not just yourself, you should want to preserve access to tacos for everyone.”
Having identified several good reasons in favor of writing the internet review, we then discussed why so many of us don’t write them. On platforms like Google and Yelp, where casual restaurants can have hundreds or thousands of reviews, contributing a write-up might feel like it’s only making a marginal difference—one drop in the ocean. Much like recycling or making charitable contributions, internet reviews can be characterized as a collective action problem. Even if the overall public interest would be served by greater participation, it’s not obvious to individuals that it’s in their interest to do their part.
But notice how one individual’s circumstances put pressure on the collective action characterization of online reviews. In a scenario where you are a repeat customer of a business, you arguably have both a special relationship with them and specialized knowledge that could potentially make your review more useful to others. That is, you and the rest of the “ocean” are not similarly bound, morally speaking. As a special “drop,” you have the responsibility to write your own review.
I was beginning to develop my position: Under most circumstances, if you are a regular customer of a business—and particularly smaller businesses where a review is more likely to have an impact on stakeholders—you have a moral duty to write an internet review. The distinction between large and small businesses made sense to me. While Amazon’s third-party service providers live or die based on their star count, Amazon itself is more influenced by press criticism or reactions in the public markets. But I wondered whether there was a clearer way to explain my intuition that regular and infrequent patronage are different. For this, Johnson King introduced me to the term supererogatory, which describes moral acts that are “above and beyond” the call of duty. Under my working theory, writing the review for the transcriptionist or the taco place would be a moral duty. Reviews for other places would fall within this other category—good, but not morally required.
Some caveats: I noted that I would not typically write a review of a business with which I’ve had only one interaction because I would not have developed a duty-based relationship or specialized knowledge. But if there is evidence that the public is being deceived—for example, an abundance of fake positive reviews—that might spur the responsibility to offer a more honest take.
Personally, I’m wary of writing highly negative reviews unless I have had a truly bad experience, such as a tour guide who lacks basic familiarity with the area or a barber using unsterilized tools. Otherwise, I tend to give businesses the benefit of the doubt. My bad experience could have been a one-off. And it’s not overstatement to say that negative reviews are devastating to small businesses—by some estimates, turning away 40 percent of customers. Certain professions—including doctors, counselors, and attorneys—are unable to respond to negative online reviews, even if they are untrue, less they violate client confidentiality. Keep notions of fairness in mind, especially if the target is ethically unable to fight back.
While I’m hoping to inspire myself and others to write more internet reviews, it’s worth noting that highly prolific review writers are not necessary morally excellent people. The longtime and high-volume reviewers who are part of the Yelp Elite Squad are invited to fancy black-tie dinner parties so long as they keep writing. It’s hard to know whether these supercontributors are primarily motivated by altruism or self-aggrandizement (or bacon-wrapped dates). But perhaps it’s helpful to remember that some types of conduct may be morally right but not of high moral value, depending on the individual’s motivation.
Overall, I’ve come to believe that for repeat customers of a business—and particularly when the service has been good—there’s a moral duty to write an internet review in our current digital age. Perhaps we can think of this as a situational (i.e., noncategorical) imperative. Hat tip Immanuel Kant.
Some people might be understandably wary of contributing reviews to large companies like Google or LinkedIn for fear of bolstering the powers of Big Tech. (See also: the forthcoming documentary about Yelp Billion Dollar Bully.) I’m sympathetic to this argument, but to me, it’s outweighed by the public interest in having accurate information published on the most relied-upon internet platforms. Others might object on privacy grounds. Netflix’s You depicts a stalker using internet reviews to track a person’s movements. But the leading internet review sites offer the possibility to use a pseudonym for internet reviews or to write anonymously, which can ameliorate the concern in many cases.
Perhaps the most common objection would be that people simply have better things to do with their time. Yes, we are all superbusy. But again, it helps to frame the issue in terms of comparative moral worth. Certainly, a parent tending to a sick child shouldn’t shirk that responsibility in order to write an online review—the first activity has much greater utility and the parent owes a duty to the child. But for the rest of us, keep in mind that writing an online review can take as little as two minutes.
Philosophy superfans may have noticed that I covered only two of the three main approaches to normative ethics. In contrast to consequentialism or duty-based deontology, virtue ethics emphasizes virtues or moral excellence. While the other theories primarily focus on actions, virtue ethics focuses on character or the type of person we should strive to be. In preparation for this piece, I wrote a few internet reviews of businesses where I was a regular customer, many of them under a pseudonym. Now that I’ve tested it out, I’ve been mulling about whether the virtue ethics framework applies. As far as I can tell, I haven’t leveled up on personal virtues like charity of benevolence from writing a handful of reviews.
Then again, the Greek conception of virtue included not only moral traits but practical wisdom, and it seems to me that this is where writing internet reviews could potentially provide a boost. Because it’s one thing to know you like that book/podcast/restaurant/coffee shop. It’s another to carefully consider and communicate to others why you like those places, at the right time, in the right way. In other words, reviewing (tacos) is its own reward.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.