Trolling Amazon: The Dark Side of Customer Reviews

I woke up this morning to an email from promoting a series of 2013 Oscar-nominated movies that were available on DVD and Blu-ray. Those who know me know I love movies and am completely enamored by televised award ceremonies that honor and celebrate them.

Now, I know there is no quantitative means of discerning which film was "best" and that, at best, many of the awards go to those movies and their collective collaborators who enjoy the politicking efforts of their respective studio executives, but it doesn't stop me from having my own rooting interests nor does it stop me from cheering (while eating pizza and chips during the Oscar party I hosted) when my favorite films win awards.

In preparation for the 2013 Academy Awards, I attended the AMC Best Picture Showcase where, over the course of two Saturday marathon sessions, I watched all nine nominated films:

So, this morning, as I marked the first full week of my post-Oscar malaise, I was delighted to see Amazon promoting the Oscar-nominated films.  Wanting only to briefly tap into the good feelings that great movies instill in me, I clicked on several of the movie titles listed.

The first film I clicked on was Beasts of the Southern Wild and, before I saw anything else, I noticed how many customer reviews it had (nearly 800 as of this writing).

While the reviews were overwhelmingly positive, there were some negative reviews. Anytime a piece of art reaches a wide audience, negative reviews are to be expected, so this wasn't anything that caught me off guard. What did catch me off guard, however, was how mean-spirited some of the words were amongst the reviewers, such as:

 "Miserable. I want my time back."

"Ugh, I really hated it!" 

This compelled me to read other negative reviews from the Oscar-nominated films, such as Life of Pi:

" much energy and charm as a vibrator with a dying battery..."

"The only good thing I can say about this movie is that it recreates the experience of sea sickness without actually being on the water..."

And Silver Linings Playbook:

"Bradley Cooper has no charisma whatsoever. Jennifer Lawrence is bad girl boring. Robert De Niro has been playing this exact same part forever and physically looks to be morphing into Tony Bennett. And De Niro's wife - well, I thought it was Sally Struthers post-diet making a comeback - but it wasn't her - but whomever it was, all the actress did was stand around looking pole-axed."

"One star because zero stars isn't an option, nor is a black hole icon."

Before I knew it, more than an hour had past of me reading negative reviews for many movies that I have overwhelmingly positive feelings for. And I found that the exercise of reading these negative words served only to upset me and put me in a sad mood. It got me to thinking about the people who wrote the mean-spirited reviews, wondering what their motivations were. If they simply wanted to offer a critique to help inform curious consumers, that's one thing, but their objectives seemed far more devious and cynical than that.

And this all led me to thinking about the culture of social networking and cyber-bullying, how, when faced with a computer screen, certain individuals are filled with the bravery to say truly awful and hurtful things without hesitation or remorse. Such people are, in Internet vernacular, generally referred to as "trolls" and what they do is known as "trolling." What trolls do is enter into Internet communities and speak in inflammatory terms for the sole purpose of eliciting an emotional response, like a petulant child who misbehaves for attention. A troll will spend five minutes of their lives trashing art that has taken someone else years of hard work to produce.

As an author, I've seen and read most all of the negative reviews of my novel Inside the Outside. While it never feels good to read somebody's take on why they didn't like it, I've always approached customer reviews with the attitude that the moment somebody pays money to read my novel they're free to say whatever they like about it. That said, I still wish we lived in a more cordial time, where reviewers could share their negative critiques in more respectful terms; I wish they'd assume the artists behind the works they're trashing are actual human beings with hearts, minds, and feelings.

It's all subjective, of course, and everybody is entitled to their opinion, but whenever I see a particularly shitty or hurtful review of a movie or a book or anything of the like, I ask myself: Would they say those same exact words if the artist were standing in front of them?

Unless they're severe sociopaths, the answer is no.

But, because we live in this new and evolving age of cyber-communication, trolls and cyber-bullies are becoming more and more emboldened to fill the world with hatred and negativity. And while I'd like to think this is just some passing phase, I suspect it will exist  for as long as we have the Internet, which, barring some sort of apocalyptic event, will be the rest of our lives.

On the bright side, we can only be affected by trolls if we empower them by reading their words, which means the obvious and simple solution is to ignore them.  And that's exactly what I plan to do.