How Was Your Experience? Please Rate the Entire World

Upon searching “Pacific Ocean” using Google Maps, one might expect to find a diagram of the world that illustrates Earth’s largest body of water. And yes, the result returns an interactive graphic displaying just that.

But the aquatic destination also gets a rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars, and more than 14,500 reviews, many describing presumably fictional experiences. “Stop down-voting the ocean because of sharks,” chides one.

User-generated feedback is now constantly self-published on sites such as Google Maps, Amazon and Yelp, a crowdsourced education for potential customers about the functions, satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) of products, services and venues. The format is so common it is now often spoofed.

In September, on Google Maps, a critic with the screen name Makorun shared thoughts regarding the Pacific: “Wonderful ocean. Very refreshing, although it needs a heating feature. If it was drinkable I would rate it 5 stars but I’ll keep it at 4 until the developer fixes the water. Almost every species is aggressive, except for the dolphins sometimes. I suggest making it breathable too and maybe add more light in the deep parts of the ocean.” This imaginative paragraph received more than 140 likes.

Funny comments on Amazon became so popular, the company published “Did You Read That Review?: A Compilation of Amazon’s Funniest Reviews” in 2014. The text, available in paperback and (of course) Kindle, highlights more than 100 items that inspired comical reactions. Featured products include a yodeling pickle, a JL421 Badonkadonk Land Cruiser / Tank and a three-carat diamond pacifier that once retailed for $17,000.

A reviewer named McBaine shared thoughts on the bejeweled baby accessory in August 2014: “I’m sure this would be great for some babies but since mine prefers his thumb he won’t even try this out. We decided to go with a 5K platinum band thumb ring, you know just so he doesn’t feel neglected.”

Angie Newman, a spokeswoman for Amazon, said pricing is often a factor when it comes to joking commentary. “A really expensive gadget of some sort, or a really inexpensive gadget, can lead to some humorous content,” she said.

Ms. Newman, who lives in Seattle, has observed a variety of written opinions surrounding a range of products, citing a Richard Simmons Disco Sweat CD, a self-washing, self-flushing cat litter box, and a horse mask.

As long as consumers’ feedback falls within the community guidelines, their reactions are passable for publication on Amazon, she said. The rules prohibit profanity, pornography, posting other people’s phone numbers and name-calling, among other indiscretions.

The site, with more than 300 million customer accounts worldwide, and hundreds of millions of reviews, uses artificial intelligence to scan comments in a timely manner and ensure users are complying with the site’s guidelines.

“Automated systems are not perfect, but we have good rates of being consistent in terms of what’s making the cut and what’s not,” Ms. Newman said. Customers can also report violations for investigation, should statements appear unfit.

On Yelp, seeking references for bars and restaurants is typical, but local hospitals, colleges and universities, as well as prisons and correctional facilities, are listed too.

Scott P., of Greenlawn, N.Y., left a satirical comment about Rikers Island Correctional Facility of East Elmhurst, N.Y., in October 2017. “Not a bad place for a short stay,” he wrote. “Close to La Guardia airport. Kind of hard to get a taxi though. Swimming is dangerous. Guards don’t want you to leave.” The jail complex mostly houses inmates awaiting trial.

Julie Armstrong, a clinical and forensic psychologist in Los Angeles and Phoenix, said these comments can stem from feeling annoyed in response to retailers constantly requesting product or service reviews. “Sometimes they’re intended to be funny,” Dr. Armstrong said. “In some cases, it’s an opportunity to express frustration in a focused way, in a sarcastic way.”

Other participants consider it a hobby. “Some of these people write hundreds and hundreds of reviews,” Dr. Armstrong said. “It’s a talent to put the words together in a way that we find amusing. It’s not exactly like you’re going to review the DMV to decide where you’re going to get your driver’s license.”

But perhaps readers will at least take a peek. Opinions about departments of motor vehicles are shared on Yelp and Google Maps, too. One written by a William M. of Manhattan about an office in the Financial District appears to have taken about as long as he spent on license renewal (10 minutes). “If you want the classic dingy, scary NYC institutional experience, you'll have to either go to Penn Station during rush hour, or visit your cousin Vinny at Rikkers,” William wrote approvingly. Four voted his extensive remarks “useful,” six “funny,” two “cool.”

“People like to be a part of a community, and who doesn’t like making other people laugh?” Ms. Newman said. “It’s fun to share that with other people.”

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