On one cold February evening a few years ago, my friend Brian joined me for a quick casual dinner at a bland chain restaurant. While the meal was forgettable, I still vividly recall what he said to me when I asked where he had been that day. “Oh, I went to the movies with Jessica,” he replied. “Yeah, we saw Norbit. It was pretty funny! You should check it out!”
And just like that, in mere seconds, as we noshed on fried whatevers, dipping them in something sauce, and washing it all down with this-tastes-close-enough-to-beer, our relationship changed forever. My friend, whom I had previously respected as an astute, thoughtful human being with a decent sense of humor, had just recommended I go spend $10 to watch Eddie Murphy make fart jokes in a fat suit.
From the forwarded email to Facebook’s overused “Like” button, the purity of the online referral has been in a steady state of decline, simply because the act itself is so damn easy. Suggesting a good hair salon to a friend in-person requires eye contact; relevant information; accountability. But vouching for a business online? A quick click is all you need.
Indeed, friend recommendations are mattering less and less as they’re given more and more. When Company X offers a potential prize for “liking” them on Facebook, that gamesmanship isn’t hinted at when you see in your newsfeed that Gary Jones (just pretend you have a friend named Gary Jones for a second) likes Company X. But it’s a pattern that more people are becoming hip to.
For sure, what matters most is a quality referral–something with some signs of effort and enthusiasm attached to it. But a friend’s recommendation is only as good as their last one. Once your buddy – straight face intact – suggests you spend two hours watching Norbit, every single suggestion he makes after that is tainted.
So maybe it’s actually the recommendation of a stranger, no, a group of strangers that matters more. Marketing agencies are all about getting “friends to tell their friends” and companies like Microsoft and Facebook plow money into showing you “what your friends like” but what we really care about is what the majority of strangers like. Think about it: Before we make a purchase on Amazon, we check out the reviews from strangers, tapping into the collective wisdom of an anonymous crowd. If your friend raves about that new tuna-flavored toothpaste, but 65 strangers give it one star, you’re sticking with spearmint, right?
Friends are great. They pick you up from the airport; they help you move; they respect the fact that you don’t want them touching your sister in her bathing suit spots. But they’re not always right. The more friend recommendations are spread around the less weight they carry, and knowing where an educated mass of strangers stand on something is surely more vital. Knowing that, and knowing the corpse of Gene Siskel is still a better source of movie reviews than my friend Brian, now that, that is something we can recommend.