My pandemic comfort? Google reviews. They can be as compelling as any TV drama

The comments aren’t just transactional – they can reveal more about how we connect than the curated feeds of social media

Human connection can often be found where you least expect it. Google Maps, started as a straightforward navigation tool, has become in recent years an unlikely treasure trove of humour and intrigue. With many businesses in my area closed for much of the pandemic, I took to exploring them through the reviews that others had left online. I have traversed foreign cities from my sofa, idly dreaming of future holidays via a one-line description of the perfect snack bar.

From reviews of a local bistro to the dry cleaner, I have stumbled on snatches of city life that seem as compelling as any sitcom. Entire sagas are played out in a few sentences, and I have read elaborate tales of love, fights, breakups and makeups. “The owners created a drama around them, and chose us to express all their violence,” begins one particularly ominous review of a bar, which ends with: “We spent the night in hospital and my friend had to get surgery to fix his nose.”

Some reviewers hold businesses to impossible standards. Common complaints include not being allowed in without a reservation on a busy night, brisk service from overworked staff, and even not being able to find the venue. Luckily, it’s not just the patrons who get the chance to express themselves. Proprietors can respond with their side of the story, too. One employee is unapologetic in a succinct reply to an unfavourable assessment of their service: “I’m like a mirror, you get what you give.” Another states: “You have one review on your account; my conclusion is you are a stingy git”, along with the advice to “get your tastebuds tested”. Owners often give lengthy explanations in their own defence or profusely thank those who have left positive feedback, a reminder of the power that these reviews can have.

In the last year I have chatted with the three brothers who run my local corner shop in Hoxton Street, east London, more regularly than I have any family member or friend. Their shop was the first business that I took the step of reviewing myself on Google Maps, a glowing assessment of both their tinned goods and welcoming manner. More recently I returned to my review and discovered that the local vicar had responded with a poignant reflection on the community spirit of the neighbourhood, with particular reference to another former regular of the shop – my mum, whose funeral he presided over four years ago. It was an unexpected connection that brought me close to tears.

Since then I have written reviews for several of my favourite spots both near and far, short treatises that are as casually hyperbolic as they are genuinely emotional. I hope that these offer some small support to the businesses that have suffered most during the pandemic, when the precarious nature of our relationship with them has never been clearer.

It is now rare to find a business that is not listed on Google Maps, a darker sign of just how entangled the US company has become with every step we take out in the real world. The reputations of small, family-run businesses are on the line, while their numerous critics are largely invisible and unaccountable. Google has often portrayed itself as a friend to small businesses, offering them the tools to reach new patrons, but the balance of power is starkly tipped only one way.

An article in style magazine the Cut last month described how New Yorkers have been championing their own neighbourhood joints by buying and wearing branded souvenirs and merchandise from diners and bodegas (the city’s equivalent of corner shops) alike. Since the pandemic began, the writer argues, these items have gone from fashion statement to something more political – “wearing the shirt may mean saving that bar”. I feel similarly about Google Maps reviews, which perform a function that is both practical and symbolic.

I know there are others like me out there. I can see them in the hundreds of reviews posted each day. There is something vaguely embarrassing about the online versions of ourselves not intended for those who know us, away from the curated feeds of social media. Like eBay seller listings, Gumtree ads or posts on Nextdoor, I write my reviews with the freedom that comes with relative anonymity. I enjoy the fact that even the owner of a business with whom I exchange pleasantries on a daily basis will probably never know it was me. More than a transaction, these reviews speak of the chance encounters and fleeting intimacies of our daily lives.

Louise Benson is deputy editor of the art and culture magazine, Elephant

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