We all know that Netflix and Amazon use ratings to make recommendations.
Recommendations tap into the force that the public relations counsel Edward Bernays wrote about in the 1920s in his book Propaganda, through to what Chris Anderson wrote about in his 2006 book, The Long Tail.
That is, that we look to others whom we respect to guide us to what we want. Therefore what we want is often a product of the groups with which we want to identify.
Opinion leaders, peer recommendation, group identification, tribes, niche markets, the wisdom of crowds – recommendations and ratings are the life blood of all of them.
Google depends on it, Amazon thrives on it.
There is more going on than simple numbers when I read that 900 people on Amazon have all rated a particular camera highly.
I am swayed by the numbers because I attribute characteristics to a significant majority of those people.
I assume that a significant proportion are familiar with cameras and are level-headed and intelligent. In fact they may all be complete idiots who only take occasional happy-snaps.
I don’t read all 900 reviews, nor even a significant sample. Instead, I distill those reviewers into a mirror image of the reviewer I want to be convinced by.
Chris Anderson makes an interesting point in The Long Tail when he points out a problem that eBay has.
eBay wants to recommend products to us, but the users define their own products when they write their ads. So eBay simply does not know what it is selling. Therefore it cannot recommend the products for which it acts as middleman.
It’s a plausible explanation for why eBay has started to specify criteria and characteristics that sellers must use for certain branded products – such as cameras.
Edward Bernays set himself up as a propaganda consultant – or public relations counsel as he described himself in Propaganda, the book he wrote in 1928.
He was Freud’s nephew and because he was well connected he had access to the industrialists of the 1920s – with whom he found common ground.
Having seen the slaughter of the First World War he believed that the majority of human beings had to be controlled and that without something to divert them they would, if given any excuse, tear each other limb from limb.
He believed that men follow leaders and that their sense of identity and identification with the leaders and the groups was generally more important than the underlying truth or falsity of what they believed as individuals.
Sometimes, without the group mind the individual was lost.
Bernays believed that as a consequence, men would often rather sacrifice the truth than lose the fellowship of the group.
Therein lies the power of ratings and recommendations. The individual is not looking for the best book, film, or whatever. He or she is looking for the group.
Whoa! But not me. (say we all).