Reviewing the situation

Who would have thought bath screens could start a good discussion on social media? On a National Union of Journalists mailing list, of the reasonably high-up members shared with us an email he'd rather mischievously sent to a DIY store asking for their review rates after they invited him to write a customer review of his purchases. Although done in semi-seriousness, I don't necessarily agree that it's an area where the NUJ should be getting involved in. For me, although the quality of reviews can be variable to say the least, they are still a useful service and the company should be congratulated for trying to engage in a form of a two way conversation and even create a community, of sorts.

From a customer point of view, these visible levels of feedback are useful. Pre-web, any feedback would go deep into the company's filing system. Even the small step of allowing reviews and comments opens this up to a new level of conversation (although the really good ones don't just leave it at comments, they host and curate and foster a community as well).

I'm probably doing my manly image little good here by confessing DIY is something I know precious little about. To me, customer reviews from the similarly uninitiated are highly useful. A while ago a friend purchased a cabinet of sorts - several of the reviews on the site said it was a nice item but very fiddly to put together. She ignored the reviews and several hours after the delivery was cursing ignoring the reviews, and talking about adding a review herself.

This is, in my mind, hugely different from a journalistic review. I'd probably look at customer reviews first and, if still unsure, then search out a more professional view. Although whether there's a publication that has a specific section on bath screens, I have no idea. Does that level of depth exist? I suspect the SEO for the professional publication would be much worse, and harder to find than on-site reviews.

To go further, there's a strong argument for saying if there are paid reviews, they should be kept very separate from customer reviews on the site. At the very least they should be flagged as such. An unflagged paid review nestling among a group of unpaid customer reviews raises all sorts of questions, none of them good.

This isn't to say companies shouldn't include paid reviews on the site. It's quite useful to have a neutral assessment of the product, especially for more subjective things, such as music. Whether the company wants a neutral, even critical, review of a product is another matter.

User-generated content hasn't killed journalism, and neither will customer reviews either (you might as well argue that the BBC's Have Your Say boards constitute opinion columns and should be paid as such). And if a company takes it on itself to create and curate a community of, say, DIY lovers that's well-taken for the initiative (providing there is a genuine commitment to curating and keeping the community well-managed).

There's undoubtedly an issue with profitable websites that will happily commission reviews for free when the cash is there to pay the journalist. And you can argue where the line should be drawn. I also appreciate the NUJ needs to protect the interests of its members, but I'm not convinced replacing customer reviews with professional paid-for reviews on every subject would be a particularly good way to go about it.

Others may argue this is just another way of letting amateurs into do reviews for free. I disagree. Although this skirts on area that touches on journalism, communities and the general sociability features of Web 2.0, there feels a world of difference - for the reason outlined above - between getting amateurs to fill in for journalists and getting customers to give feedback and nurture a community that can contribute positively.

The one area I'd definitely agree with the NUJ member on is the original email should have a proper contact (his reply just bounced back). I'd also be curious to see what the response would be, although I suspect we'd differ on agreement of the any reply. There are plenty of good battles for the NUJ to pick to protect the future of journalism. I don't think this should be one of them, even if was done in semi-seriousness.

UPDATE: Comment from Sian below. I showed her the email, just to get things straight in my own head. I think she makes a reasonable point.

"The thing that bugs me about this, is that it doesn’t appear to be an NUJ stance, yet the guy who sent the email (the NUJ vice president no less) has decided that he’s going to use the weighting of his position to make trouble. "