As a reviewer, one generally holds a very odd position – which is simultaneously both liminal and very concrete.
Between the producer and the end consumer, you are a bulwark, a vanguard of quality. People look to reviewers before they make decisions that cost them their hard-earned cash, be that for a purchase of £5 or £50,000.
But who is the reviewer? Are they always trustworthy? What are their qualifications? Is every wine critic the world’s foremost expert, every food reviewer the owner of an unrivalled palette and expert eye?
The short answer is: no, of course not.
The question of precisely who the reviewer is and what their qualifications are has become a particularly pertinent one – with the rise of the internet and the decline of traditional publishing. And arguably, few have a bigger issue with this than the consumer technology industry.
Anyone with a camera, anyone with some spare time, every Tom, Dick and Harry can create a YouTube channel. They can all start a blog, everyone can create a global platform for themselves at the push of a button.
We see it in smartphone reviews, camera reviews, laptop reviews, every facet of consumer tech. But who are these reviewers?
In traditional publishing, the answer was simple – a journalist, someone like Walt Mossberg, who came from being a sports reporter to a consumer tech columnist over the course of his first two decades in the industry. But why do we trust someone like this, at the beginning, when they are no better than a Tom, a Dick or a Harry?
We can talk about journalistic training, ethics, experience and more, but ultimately what it boils down to is the institution in question. A technology review from the Wall Street Journal is worth more than one from a man on the street, even though that certain man may have a great deal more expertise in the chosen product category.
What then for Tom, Dick and Harry? Well, using YouTube as an example, all we can count upon is a chaotic unpredictability.
At their best, the amateur reviewer is no different than someone being paid a wage to do the same thing in a professional media organisation. Take Michael Fisher, formerly of amateur outlet ‘Pocketnow’ and now a star name in Mobile Nations – one of the closest things that the tech review world has to a conglomerate.
Mr Fisher started in 2012, or around thereabouts, with a lot of acting experience and a little video finesse. Since then his abilities, and confidence have grown immeasurably, and the quality of his finished work rivals that of specialists such as The Verge – and yet what does he offer over the rest?
At their worst, the amateur tech reviewer is a child, or a poor communicator. Someone unsuited to video work, someone who is functionally illiterate. And unfortunately, this comprises a very large swathe of the current crop.
These people are enthusiastic, but cheapen the whole affair considerably – but we live in an enlightened democracy and so cannot deny a voice.
So in this sea of reviews, some good, some awful, some professional, some amateur, how do we choose who we trust. For after all, regardless of the delusions some may have, all a review (of a device) ever can be is a subjective analysis based on a limited timeframe of usage.
For some, this question of trust comes down to personality, and this often shines through on video reviews. It is those with a real on camera presence, the right cadence, the right timing, who really do well. Michael Fisher is a prime example, the strength of instant video is the sense of perceived intimacy with the broadcaster, and this he has marshalled well.
But others abhor this approach, and don’t care for personality or ‘trustworthiness’ in the slightest. This group longs for some objective measure of quality to make a judgement on, and of course this itself presents a number of problems.
Sure, some phones have better screens, cameras, batteries etc, when a medium is defined by its technical capabilities, as these advance then obsolescence comes into play.
The issue is of course the subjectives of human nature, there can never be an ultimate handset, but there is certainly a ‘right’ phone for each person to own. This doesn’t gel well with people, who often become quite emotionally invested in their purchasing decisions and take frustrations out on others who they perceive to be an ‘enemy’.
Marketing teams have of course been aware of this for well over a century, building the concept of brand loyalties – indeed HMD Global is conducting a full blown resurrection of the recently deceased Nokia based on the former Finnish firm’s name awareness.
So we certainly react to who is presenting the review, the language used, the device in question and the medium of delivery – but the specifics of the ‘why’ are so deeply linked to our deeper psychology that only a thesis could begin to do justice.
For the moment, what we have to settle with is something rather less, like a phone, there is no right review format or perfect way to present – only those that certain people prefer. And if a review is an opinion, based on a timeframe of limited use, then that is fitting.
Where the real issue lies, is with binary definitions. If one is determined to fit a round peg into a square hole, then they can certainly try. Getting angry at the results however is a self-defeating exercise.
As for the consumer tech industry, all of this pontification has of course been done. It is famously the folly of those in the present to think they are the first to arrive at a certain conclusion.
The industry, commercially focussed, has been continually attempting to find the ‘perfect’ review format. Some dumb down, some talk up – GSMarena tasks a team of reviewers to conduct forensic tests, Techradar asks the question “What is it like to use? It is the responsibility of a writer, of an outlet, to find their own voice, but is a reviewing an art or a science?
There is of course no answer, but to research what is best for you, and enjoy the ride…