What four stars really means

The reason I stopped being a TV critic – well, it’s because I got kicked out of Radio Times. But there was also the very big pull that I wanted to make drama rather than analyse other people’s. And unfortunately there was also the pretty big push that I was getting ever more unhappy with how reviews and reviewers worked.

When you write for one magazine you obviously read all of them and this was my thing, this is what I enjoyed, this was drama, so I read them all with gusto. Except I’d keep reading a competitor’s review of a show and realise that out of the two of us, only I had actually watched the drama.

Then, too, in researching various books and looking back across archives, I would see that some reviewers were writing at best what they thought the reader wanted to have and at worst what the drama producers insisted. The same reviewer would praise a series to the heavens and then next year in the archive he or she would be praising the show’s second series by saying how much better it was than the rubbish first one.

You get the idea. I got kicked out for unrelated crimes (aka budget cuts) and reviewing is one thing I’ve not looked back at once. Except that it has tickled me how over the last couple of years I’ve done a great deal of reviewing of software.

And I love it. There is some tremendous work being done in software and the tools I’ve relished the most have become part of my daily work. I wouldn’t be producing what I’m producing if it weren’t for this stuff.

I’ve just not seen this enjoyment of reviewing as being incompatible with my previous fretting. An app says it is for X and that it does Y. You use it and find out. I’m not saying it’s easy but the nuances of drama aren’t there: I do think about why I like and enjoy one app over another and that’s important. It’s also as indefinable as reviewing drama: if you can explain to me why I enjoy writing in an app called Drafts and I don’t enjoy writing in Word, well, I’ll be grateful.

But someone else’s review came out this week of a particular piece of software and between that reviewer and me, I am honestly wondering whether only I actually launched the app.

I won’t name the app or the reviewer for a combination of reasons from how this is about the overall issue instead of one specific case, and also because of legality.

But I filed my review the other day and before it came out, there was this other website covering this same thing. I read it to see if I’d missed anything, I read it from curiosity. This other reviewer gives this app four stars. Understand this: it’s not an issue of opinion, this thing factually does not do what it says.

Nothing in this is opinion, it’s straight reporting so you report it. Or I did, anyway.

This particular software is free and these days no software is expensive but your time is valuable to me. I wouldn’t recommend an hour-long episode of a show if I didn’t mean it; equally I won’t recommend a tool that will take you a time to discover it doesn’t do what it claims. Or rather that maybe yes, strictly speaking, it’s possible to get a feature to do a thing if you’re of an engineering persuasion and aren’t actually trying to use it to do something. Oh, that’s why I don’t like Word.

I know I sound like I think I’m a paragon here and I can remember reviews where I’ve been wrong or later changed my mind so radically that I was effectively wrong. But reviewers have one job and one advantage: they’ve used the software or they’ve watched the show before you.

We can’t tell you not to buy or not to watch but we can give you our opinion and present a case for you to judge. And I say ‘we’ there because this is more than about one review. Maybe that four-star reviewer is a very technical German speaker and the bugs I found were peculiar to my Mac. I don’t mind stopping reading a site or a magazine because I’ve found that the reviews just aren’t for me, but when you stop because you can’t trust them, that makes me doubt all reviews.

There’s a big element here that as a reviewer I might think my reviewing is a small thing yet I don’t like it being undermined or not taken seriously. There’s a big element here that I use an awful lot of software and I have relied on reviews to help me find the tools I need.

So if I’m a paragon, I’m an unhappy one. Besides, I can’t claim to be virtuous because I also used four stars in my review of this app, although only to cover up an unpublishable word.

Reviewing the situation

One of the benefits of having written an awful lot of reviews is that I have a fast idea of when I should pay attention to people reviewing me and when I shouldn’t. It is astonishing how many reviewers haven’t read the book, heard the audio, seen the play or whatever that they are either decrying or praising. It is also surprising just how rapidly you can tell this.

You’ve got be thinking that I’ve just had a stinker of a bad review but no. I haven’t had reviews in a while now, good or bad, and I do miss them a little. But I’ve also waited until now to discuss this with you specifically because I haven’t had a bad review and I know you haven’t either.

I know you’ve seen bad reviews – bad as in just not well done, not bad as in unfavourable – because you use the Internet. An author mentioned recently that she came close to crying over a 1-star review someone had given her novel because they hadn’t received it yet. They have some delay in the post from Amazon and they’re off leaving 1-star reviews.

Then look on App Stores: you can’t go by the five-star reviews as they may have been posted by the developer’s mom and you can’t go by one-star reviews as they were probably left by the competition. So you’re left looking at the mid-range three-star apps and there’s no ready way to differentiate between them.

Then you get the nutters who buy a book about birdseed and complain that they would give this a zero-star rating if they could because it didn’t also cover Formula 1 motor racing.

You can argue that people are dumb and you have plenty of evidence but I’m going to be generous and assume that it’s a different type of ignorance. People who do not know that they cause damage to sales through pratting about trying to look good. The thing is, you can say that about some professional reviewers as well as Numpty99 on Amazon.

I have been a professional drama reviewer and while I hope the emphasis was on the word professional I have got to have made mistakes and misunderstood and leapt to fast conclusions. I’m not proud of that, of course, and it’ll keep me awake now thinking of it, except for one thing.

That eejit one-star book reviewer may do some damage today. The Formula 1 fan may not have seven brain cells to rub together today. And I may be just a stupid man today. But none of us matter.

This is really why I picked this topic today. I read a thing about Marie Curie and how apparently she was so reviled and decried over some trivial scandal that Albert Einstein wrote her a fan letter in support. I can barely hold the detail of the scandal in my head, but I still recommend you have a read about it. That’s chiefly because I read it on Brain Pickings which is a simply fascinating site.

But it’s also because of the last line on that site, which concludes: “She endures as one of humanity’s most visionary and beloved minds. The journalists who showered her with bile are known to none and deplored by all.”

Damn right. I’m not knocking how much you learn from reviewing, but I am knocking people who only review. Go make something.