There’s a meme in the programming community about people never using a product in the way you’d expect:

Drinking from a Glass

r/ProgrammerHumor: “Accurate depiction of end users”

What are reviews for?

For all user-generated content on the Internet, there’s a signal-to-noise ratio. My theory is that in situations where the abstraction doesn’t work, there’s very little signal – it’s hard to create meaningful content when the context is mostly nonsensical. As it turns out, the noise can be pretty funny:

Reviews of embassies fit the bill for this because reviews were designed to help individuals make comparisons between competitors. Reviews work well for any situation where there’s product differentiation – cafés, restaurants, and software are classic examples, which is why they’re rated so frequently. They work less well for pure commodities – at a petrol station or a supermarket, you’d only write a review if something really bad happened. They work terribly for things that aren’t competitive – for example, bridges (“The supporting cables used to vibrate, then they put supporting supporting cables. Good looking bridge, actually quite pleasant to walk across.”).

To me, embassies are the epitome of non-competitiveness - they’re a requirement to get a visa, but people don’t choose countries to go to based on reviews of embassies. In the words of one particularly frustrated reviewer:

Self-expression within bounded systems

On the other side of the coin, the way people interact with strict systems and handle rules and restrictions is a fundamental act of self-expression.

Indeed, the reason why all kinds of games are interesting – board games, sports, video games, whatever – is because by exploring the restricted problem space, you’re learning more about yourself, and about those who explore with you1.

The language used around the AlphaGo vs Lee Sedol match earlier this year really brought this to the front of the tech community’s mind – Go players knew that there was something inhuman about the very moves that AlphaGo played. Whether this was beautiful, or sad, or just weird is a matter of taste, but there’s no doubt that the moves were fundamentally inhuman.

The review box on Google Maps, like a game, is a bounded system – a review is attached to a place, it has a writing prompt, the user is to give a rating out of five stars.

On these fringes of what the product was originally designed for, and within the confines of the system, people self-express what’s important to them in the weirdest ways:

Presenting Embassy Reviews

So, allow me to introduce Embassy Reviews on Twitter.

Tweets are reviews taken directly from Google Maps, chosen at random from more than 11000 embassies, and 900 cities globally. Tweets are (usually) in English, four times a day, and are unfiltered - though sometimes the reviews are automatically edited down to fit in a tweet.

If you’re interested in how it’s all put together, take a look at the source code on Github.

  1. I have no idea where I got this idea from, but I remember reading that chess is widely perceived as a form of self-expression for this reason. Interviews with Jamin Warren and Robin Hunicke in Offscreen issues #13 and #14 respectively get pretty close to the concept.