Truth is a moving target, but a tech reviewer can recognize and minimize bias to connect with readers and forge trustworthy relationships
Editor’s Note: The Torqued Wrench is a look inside the mind of VeloNews.com tech writer Caley Fretz. Every other week he tackles the rumors, trends, innovations, and underpinnings of the tech world — or something else entirely. You can submit questions to TorquedWrench@competitorgroup.com. Be sure to check out Caley’s previous columns.
Truth is wonderful, but it would be easier if there were only one of them.
Sitting in front of a wood stove just before Christmas, reading a real book for the first time in months, a notification popped up on my phone. It was from Twitter, associated with a username I didn’t recognize, sent in response to no particular Tweet of mine.
It said, with a brutal simplicity: “@CaleyFretz, I don’t believe you.”
Troubling. Someone, somewhere out there, believed my writing to be a hoax. They thought at least one of my reviews to be untrue.
Depending on your definition of truth, perhaps they’re right.
In issue 13 of the magazine Privateer, which I sadly can’t link because ground up tree pulp splattered with ink remains thoroughly unlinkable, the fantastic Steve Worland waxes philosophic on the importance of a truly competent and experienced reviewer. The best tech journalists, he notes, have a uniquely vast catalogue of reference points, having ridden more bikes and gear than just about anyone else on earth. This knowledge base places them in the absolutely exclusive position of being able to contextualize an individual product within the scope of an entire industry. I like this idea; it makes me feel special. I also think it’s a bit of an exaggeration of our skills.
Worland presents a relatively simple definition of truth: an inclusion of all the relevant details, placed in proper context. On this measure, I’d like to think my own work can be considered as truthful as anything out there.
There is a yin to this yang, and it comes in the form of peer-to-peer reviews. The last decade has seen an explosion of sites that allow real riders, not paid media staff, to post their own thoughts and feelings on pieces of gear. Many in my world lament the devaluation of expertise that comes from this pluralization of review writing, but the trend can just as easily and validly be called the democratization of media. I don’t see it as good or bad; it just is. The concept, of course, is that unlike professional reviewers, these riders actually bought the product they’re reviewing. They are therefore unprejudiced by ad dollars spent, aggressive PR, and all the other factors that could potentially corrupt a professional reviewer.
This type of truth, then, is based on avoiding a certain type of bias. Peer reviews contain the inherent trust that comes with a buddy’s recommendation. On this measure, your trust in me likely falters — as much as I’d like to be, I’m not your buddy.
Here’s the problem: as a basis for trusting a writer, and trusting a review, neither of these types of truth, neither the well-honed expertise nor the uncorrupted impartiality, really passes muster. Expertise does not naturally beget integrity, and amateur reviewer status certainly does not equate to a lack of preconception. Professional reviewers have proven their willingness to skew a review for all the wrong reasons, and having one’s own cash in the game quickly compromises the amateurs. If seeking an unequivocal truth about some product is the goal, consumers are up against a wall.
So stop looking. Why? Because a single “true” review about a product doesn’t exist.
To illustrate this, I’ll turn to a fantastic piece Bicycling’s Matt Phillips posted on Tuesday.
Phillips tells of a $7,200 Diamonback that he quite enjoyed riding, but which proved vexing as he set out to write a review. During the writing process, he found himself consistently hung up on the brand rather than the performance itself. Reflecting on this relationship between contextual ambiance — a phrase I’ve just made up that refers to the story behind a product — and rider perception, he notes he is often hung up on a bike’s “story,” just as he is having problems getting past the Diamondback’s lack of one.
“It’s much easier to write about a Colnago than, say, a VeloVie, simply because of Colnago’s rich history,” he notes. I wholeheartedly agree — and this simple phrase points to the imperfection of all reviews, regardless of where they come from. True objectivity is all but impossible.
This incursion of qualitative thinking and subjectivity into the review process can be easily construed as a negative. After all, if a rider is interested in pure performance, as many are, that something is made in Italy and not Taiwan is completely irrelevant. It can easily be argued that products should be reviewed on their performance merits alone — wind tunnel data, stiffness figures, weight and all the rest. The German Tour magazine has taken this stance with much success.
But that’s not only nonsense — it’s impossible. Gear transcends its physical features; in a sport like cycling, where man and machine are so thoroughly intertwined, the way a product makes you feel is just as important as its actual functionality. Nobody, not you nor me nor anybody else, “actually rides a bike blind” to its backstory, as Phillips notes. Just as a professional reviewer gets a bit more enjoyment out of the Colnago due to its rich history, so does an amateur reviewer. So will you. That’s truth.
I cannot remove my bias. I can minimize it, stuff it away as deep into the depths of my head as it will go, but there’s no ridding myself of it. My perceptions will always be affected by the way I ride, where I ride, with whom I ride; by my fitness, caffeine intake, and stress levels. They’ll be altered by a product’s backstory, by whether I know the engineer behind it and whether I like the way it looks. This collection of inputs should be allowed to steer a review as much as any objective feature.
Truth is not a lack of reviewer bias or a concise contextualization within a market, though both of these are desirable. Truth in reviewing can only be found in an accurate and honest representation of a product’s real value as perceived by oneself, taking into account perception, opinion, and a heap of estimation. The value I place on something won’t always jive with the experience of others. But to base a review off anything but one’s own real experiences, to try to make sweeping assumptions about the views and needs of others, for example, is dishonest.
If you occasionally don’t believe me, I don’t blame you.