With some time to myself this summer, I've been indulging an addiction now and then. It's legal. It's probably not going to damage my health. I'm addicted to reading negative reviews on Trip Advisor.
I've always loved bad reviews. Opening the weekend papers, I hope that AA Gill or Giles Coren will have had a negative restaurant experience or watched some bad TV, because their negative comments are written with such exquisite disgust and delicious, satisfying venom. I love it too when Jeremy Clarkson hates a car. But best of all is when someone expresses disgust at an establishment near home. There's a sneaky kind of conspiratorial schadenfreude in seeing that café I don't like or that hotel I drive past now and then being utterly lambasted. Best of all if the reviewer deploys dark humour, as happened in the review which has gone down in local legend about a seaside swimming complex which one reviewer thought so bad that they believed every member of staff had a death wish.
But reading reviews isn't just entertainment, and that's where it gets complicated. Shopping trips, once punctuated by the adrenaline rush of buying something new and not being quite sure how this will work out, are now slowed to stop by constant googling. What did they say about that book in the Sunday papers? Does that kitchen appliance get positive reviews, or is it liable to burst into flames as soon as you turn your back? What are the latest rumours about new phone or tablet launches: if I change mine now, will it obsolesce in six weeks' time? And it's not just gadgets: I've avoided buying items of clothing which have had only two or three stars in customer reviews. It's got to the point where checking with reviews when on a shopping trip feels less like sensible research, and more like asking for permission...
But it doesn't stop there. Give reviews a second look. Maybe we're all being reviewed by everyone around us, and presenting a picture of ourselves to our consumers to try to get the 'likes'. We see it most of all (and usually, most kindly) when someone dies. Obituaries are almost always kind: respect and politeness create the tradition that nothing too bad is ever said of the dead: on RIP Advisor, if that isn't too ironic. When someone retires or leaves a workplace, the tributes flow: we remember the brilliant things they did and kindly omit the negatives. It gets quite amusing when we endorse our single friends on dating sites, giving them the best review we can in the attempt to engineer their happiness: Courtship Advisor. We do it for ourselves on social media: not many people post photos of what they look like when exhausted, hungover or distraught in those carefully curated adverts for their perfect lives.
People are reviewing one another all the time, whether it's the casual demolition of appearance or full-scale character assassination or approval. It's paralysing, if you start to think about it too much: all those negatives about your looks, your dress-sense, what impression you're giving and what people will think. You imagine the worst review you could get... or wonder whether you make so little impact that writing a review just doesn't seem worth the trouble. Teachers, of course, have the stunningly affirming opportunity to find out what their pupils think of them on that frightening website, RateMyTeacher. Apparently I can seem off putting, hard to get to know and sarcastic, but when you get to know me I'm fairly interesting and well read; people often seem to like my colleagues more than they like me. Not entirely a surprise, although I've always felt utterly incapable of working out what people think of me. When it comes to reviews of ourselves, of course, the bad reviews are not the ones we want to read: they make us cry, not laugh, and they're the ones that stick in our minds. We learn from them, but we fixate on them as well, forgetting the praise but mostly remembering the censure.
The thing about reviews, though, whether the opinionated rantings of an AA Gill or a Jeremy Clarkson or the damning with faint praise of friend, family member or colleague, is that it's just what the words suggest: a re-view, looking again, with the filter of opinion. Not fact: opinion. The dress which was highly praised on a clothes retailer's website might make me look like a sack of potatoes. The book which won awards and praise might bore me, or seem pretentious. You might think I'm boring because I spend as much time as possible reading. That's fine. I read books which don't seem boring to me: so even if you think I'm boring, at least I'm not also bored...
I recently learned the new definition augmented reality, used for games like Pokémon Go, where the virtual and the real worlds meet. In the augmented reality of reviewing ourselves based on the filtered versions of other people's lives, encountered on social media, which can make us feel so lacking, maybe the addiction to the negative review persists. The augmented reality of social media might end up making me believe that my life and I are boring, and that other people have it so much better. It's just opinion. I need to look again, seeing through other people's Egotrip Advisor and finding the facts beneath the filters of opinion. My life is fabulous. Envy me. You're boring by comparison.
Your life may well be fabulous. But I still have permission to live mine. So now review me if you dare.