Are Product Reviews Full of Sh!t?
I’ve started to become a little bit worried this month. There are a lot of questions rolling in. Many of them are great. Some of them are not. A few of you scare me. But it’s all made me a little bit worried about how I can possibly get this frame into the hands of the “right” person. So I’m not going to. Instead of giving the frame to whichever question I happen to answer last this month, we’re going to give every question answered a chance to win. So, Green Beret guy from last week, you’re still in the running for the frame.
Dear Uncle Dave,
I write this naked, lying prostrate and sauced up on good liquor. You see, I am one of those tragic single speeders who still believes the dream exists. Who chases it up trees in provincial backwaters at 3am. Who still stands on the pedals f#cking* hard because what else do we as humble men and women have to offer. We are finite, and unremarkable. Get after it. What else would you be doing?
*(Note – we have no problem with judicious use of profanity, but some articles are getting punished by the internet when words like f#ck and sh!t are present. So this is a f#cking experiment to see if the f#cking bots have an issue with hashtags and f#cking exclamation points. Back to the f#cking letter).
This f#cking industry. How have we collapsed inward to a state where product reviews aren’t worth the damn megabyte they consume? How is it that the media have ceased to serve the readership, and instead serve the advertising receivables? What happened to integrity?
I always imagined mountain biking as a counter-culture; a rebellion against what is accepted and what is the done thing. But increasingly I see our figureheads as a bunch of affable pussies, regurgitating marketing spiels and feeding the corporate line to the readership because “mate, we’re running a business here.”
Let’s call a spade a spade. Maybe it’s not tenable, maybe it’s bad business. But f#ck all that, I’d rather fail doing something honestly than limp along under false pretences. Get a backup plan. Quit the pandering. Grow a pair. Or do something else.
Either way, I probably still won’t read it, because I’ve checked out. But maybe some can still be saved. I wish you the best.
I’m not sure why, but this reader seems hell-bent on skirting our general policy of anonymity for question askers. They’ve used their real name and attached a photo for good measure. We’ll see if the editors decide to post the photo. If not, it’s a rather striking photograph of what appears to be a man in his underwear, wearing some sort of hipster approved hat, walking in a field with some kind of llama-type animal. His farmer’s tan is sublime. It’s not clear if he is drunk.
Ed: of course we’ll allow it. Here it is, in all its fedora-wearing-tipsy-hipster-feeding-a-llama glory. And, by the way, we like pictures. We’re not saying including a picture will improve your chances of winning a prize, but it can’t hurt. Look at Tom – he’s a bit nuts, but Uncle Dave is about to oblige him. You go, Tom.
We decided to use Tom’s image. Because it’s amazing.
I’ve only been on a couple of mountain bike-related junkets. I treated them like I treat anything else that I choose to write about. I asked questions, took in information and attempted to come up with something new and interesting to say about the whole thing. And I was surprised to see that not many of the other participants did the same. Some did, and were able to provide a novel point of view with fresh information that I didn’t pick up on. Many just regurgitated the information handed to them by the manufacturer and left it at that.
The first time this happened it confused me. Was I not flown across the country to add some sort of value to the operation? Was it really just a fancy show-and-tell that didn’t require any actual thought? The second time around I paid more attention and I started to understand what was going on a little bit better.
The problem, I think, is that some of these guys are pumping out an insane amount of content. They’re constantly on the road and they’re responsible for multiple posts every week (or day). Read through this article about a retiring Gizmodo Blogger responsible for 11,000+ blog posts and it starts to make sense. Quality and thoroughness are not always highest on the list of requirements.
So, with respect to the general state of mountain bike journalism these days I almost totally agree with what you are saying. There are too many press releases, too much acceptance of what manufacturers say as ‘the truth,’ and too many nearly identical stories showing up at exactly the same time.
With respect to product reviews, I don’t necessarily disagree with you, but I agree less. There are certainly many cases where, long term, a product is revealed to be a giant piece of shit, yet it was reviewed countless times and nothing was said. In some cases, there probably are some terrible shenanigans going on in the background. But the majority of the time I think the causes of this are relatively innocent. Lazy, maybe. But innocent.
As mentioned above, I think the primary villain is this insatiable demand for content. Readers want to read about the newest equipment right away and the result is that most reviews just don’t last long enough. You can learn a lot about a bike in a month, but you’re probably not going to discover any long term or durability issues. It is unfortunate, but people are far less interested in reading about a bike that was launched six months ago than the one that was launched last week.
As well, not all problems appear for all riders. Location, conditions, riding style, etc. all can contribute to the failure of a product. Something might work really well for a reviewer but fail under other riders.
The last point is that things tend to suck when you publish a negative review. The best manufacturers take the bad with the good and treat it as a learning experience. The worst manufacturers freak out over any perceived slight to their product and make life difficult for everybody involved. And that’s before you get to the readers. For some reason, there’s always a group that gets really angry about a negative review. This seems to degenerate into a pissing match of “hardcoreness” with suggestions that the only reason you didn’t like the product is because you’re not awesome enough to make it work properly. You’d have to be an idiot to seek this out on purpose.
My strategy for avoiding these pitfalls is to approach all gear reviews with an attitude of general fear and self-doubt. I always assume that I haven’t spent enough time on a piece of equipment and push for “just one more ride.” I ride on trails that I hate just so that I can be certain that I’ve covered off each and every angle. And before I dump on a product I make sure I have enough supporting information to throw it back in the complaint complainer’s stupid little face. But that’s just me. I’m lucky to have the support of people that let me take my sweet-assed time (for the most part) and are willing to back me up on my opinions. I’m also lucky enough to not have to rely on this sh!t to put food on my table. So if it all blows up in my face I can start kiteboarding or food blogging or something like that.
But really, I don’t see many publications or reviewers getting this all that wrong. We’re all facing the same pressures and we all respond a little bit differently, but I don’t think you can make it long term if you are actively deceiving readers. Ya, of course I wish there were more people that had the balls to explicitly call things out, but I also understand that blowing shit up is seldom the right way to change anything in the long term. Undoubtedly, a few giant pieces of shit that had no business being sold have slipped through the cracks, but it’s a stretch to lay all that blame at the hands of a corrupt mountain bike journalism cartel. We’re just not that smart or organized.
My advice for anybody reading reviews:
- Never treat the word of one person as gospel. Several reviews will give you a better idea than one.
- Don’t read too much into a review that comes out shortly after the bike is released. Gremlins don’t usually show up that quickly.
- If you insist on buying that brand new product in its first year of existence, you might end up being a guinea pig. That is not necessarily the reviewer’s fault.
- If you don’t agree or want some clarification, ask a respectful question of the reviewer. It’s amazing what information you can dig up if you’re not a dick about it.
- If you no longer trust the opinions of somebody, stop reading their work. For bonus points, you can open up a satirical Twitter account in their name and get to work totally destroying their reputation. That takes effort though, but man do they ever deserve it for creating opinions about bikes that you don’t agree with. That shit is important!
Tom wins a bar and stem from Commencal’s online store. If you’d like to win a prize from Uncle Dave – send him a question. And remember – there are no bad questions, unless you ask Uncle Dave.
“The RIDE ALPHA handlebar was developed in order to offer the most intuitive shape possible and to simplify the handlebar adjustments in relation to the stem, but also to the brakes, shifters and other components.”
“RIDE ALPHA Stem – 50mm is a standard extension for a stem built to go big for downhill, dirt jumping or big mountain enduro – a length for the perfect harmony between commitment, comfort and fun with today’s frame geometries.”
Have an opinion about bike reviewers? Opine below.