If the “products” we review online are really individual humans, what responsibility do we have as users? Is honesty really harmless?
Back in my Chinatown days, I hired a Taskrabbit to come over and hang a big painting a friend had given me. Times were tight so I scrolled through the app to try and balance ratings and cost. What happened next was a close to total failure.
Yes, my painting ended up being on the wall, but steps A through Y were a true adventure. The Taskrabbit, let’s call him Mike, showed up an hour and a half late and by himself. I had described the size and weight of the painting and it surely wasn’t a one person job. Mike assured me that his partner and his wife were on their way.
I went back into my room and 15 minutes later I came out to check on progress. Mike was leaning back at a 45 degree angle, trying to balance the painting on his body and guide it into place. The wall was pockmarked with 4 unevenly drilled holes that all but guaranteed that I wouldn’t get my apartment security deposit back.
Mike’s partner and his wife had arrived, but they were on my couch scrolling through their phones. Just as I started to ask if Mike needed help, a corner of the frame hit the wall and dragged a diagonal line across the paint. He **bounced** the painting off his body and proceeded to move it around until he caught one of the screws. When it finally did catch and the massacre of my wall had concluded, he stepped back and looked at his work.
I took a glance at the painting and realized his look was one of “yeah I know it’s crooked but is it good enough?” I told him out loud it wasn’t, at which point he decided the easiest way to fix it would be to put in a nail and prop it up on one side. Creative? Yes. Another hole in my wall? Certainly.
Mike and his crew left, and while the damage was hidden by the size of the painting, I would always know what lay behind it.
A Bad Review? What to do…
Think about any horror story you’ve had or heard from any of the marketplace apps from the past 10 years. Uber, DoorDash, Upwork, Fiverr, AirBnB, or even Yelp. The final step for all of them is the review. The strength of these two-sided platforms depends on demand, supply, and the quality of each. Reviews are supposed to give comfort that you can trust that beach house in Florida, that Thai restaurant on the Lower East Side, that Uber Driver at 1am, that programmer in Pakistan, or that Mike from Taskrabbit.
But I’ve found that honesty and anonymity are positively correlated. If the reviewer is known, the review is compromised.
When Mike left my apartment I actually talked with my friends about what to do. I could give a bad rating and a detailed review, helping all those after me understand what they were getting into. Or I could give no review. Or I could give a normal 5 stars with no description and call it a day.
Coloring my decision was the fact that Mike knew where I lived. My face, name, and date of service would be plastered right next to my honest, helpful, but really bad review.
On Upwork, I found Hassan from Pakistan to help me do some backend work on a website. He did a great job, and I wrote up a lengthy review saying why. But if he hadn’t, do I really want some gifted young programmer halfway across the world to have a vendetta against me? Aren’t schools across America getting hacked left and right? Isn’t Russia still living in our government computers? I most likely would have given a decent review if it hadn’t gone well.
To me, peace of mind trumps any obligation to my fellow marketplace buyers.
The Covid Variable
There is also a huge nuance introduced by Covid. Before Covid I would have made the distinction that on an app like Uber it’s a no brainer to give honest reviews. The driver may know where you live, but they won’t know what you rated them. During Covid, livelihood comes into play more than it used to, or at least makes me think far more about it.
I had an Uber driver nearly fall asleep while we were on the highway. (In his defense, the road was straight and his steering wheel was straight, so I’m sure we would been good for a few miles.) I caught his attention, grabbed a roadside Dunkin Donuts iced coffee for him, and made it home alive.
As the app asked me for a review, I hesitated. This guy barely spoke English and had most likely been driving 24 hours straight to be that tired in the middle of the day. Or at least that seemed the most likely scenario. If he was supporting a family in the middle of Covid and my flagging this to Uber would have seriously jeopardized his income, what should I do? As a contractor, he most certainly did not have unemployment.
I ended up not saying anything. I understand that the knock on effects from that decision may be negative for future users, but it seemed that, during Covid, those negative effects for the driver would be direct and guaranteed if I told Uber about this.
No system is perfect. The flexibility and opportunity provided by these platforms may outweigh every negative I can think of. But as a consistent user of these apps, I recognize that there are probably other people like me. It means that I don’t believe the reviews create an efficient, merit-based market.
When I really need something consequential done, my rule is to filter for consistently effusive reviews. I find the people and places that engender 5 stars and enthusiastic reviews. Most of them will start with “I rarely give reviews…”. And for everything else, I assume there are hidden downsides that I need to prepare for.
Writing out my experience above I found myself having debates in my head, reliving my earlier decisions. Two points stand out.
There is a Hunger Games aspect to all of this. Those at the top see the labor at the bottom as dispensable and in service to the top. The top may see an obligation to other toppers to make sure that service stays high quality and so in that narrow context, buyers on these platforms have a duty to be honest.
There’s also the free market aspect – bad ratings should make someone work harder to improve their skills so they can charge more or get more rides. “If she wanted a better tip, she should have given better service,” says every older white man at a restaurant. These people argue that we would all benefit if our workplaces gave reviews for every task we accomplished. I’d guess that people in that camp also think they’re always above average, forgetting how averages work. They can also always go work at Bridgewater.