The internet is a bottomless well of people whining about stuff, but my favourite place to see unhinged whining is in the reviews for things that don’t need to be reviewed. Like, why are there so many angry one-star reviews for the Red Sea? Just because it isn’t red? What’s there to be gained from smearing one of the Eastern world’s most iconic bodies of water? And moreover, who has the time?
Obviously a lot of people who leave comments like this are joking—but are all of them? And what exactly does Google make of this? To get an answer, I reached out to the tech giant for comment.
“Using Google Maps satellite imagery you can see that the Red and indeed Black Seas are ... sea coloured,” a Google representative responded. “Seriously though, jokes from larrikins might be good for a laugh, but they aren’t helpful to understand what to expect when you visit. As our policies say, reviews on Google Maps should accurately represent a person’s experience at a location.”
This was a good answer, but it wasn’t quite enough. Because I still really wanted to know who these prissy, overly-negative people were. So I tracked down a bunch of them to ask some hard questions.
Alistar Wickens, Aotearoa/New Zealand. Reviewed the Tasman Sea
VICE: Do you remember writing this review of the Tasman Sea?
Alistar: I do remember writing that review, because I thought it was so weird that Google was asking me to review a sea. I do usually only write serious reviews, and usually only when Google prompts me to review somewhere I've recently visited. I had been near the Tasman Sea at the time, as I live near the sea, but that was the first and only time I'd been asked to review it (or any body of water).
Was your 3-star review genuine?
I'd say it was a genuine rating for that particular sea and I stand by my review. It is indeed wet, salty and quite deep as far as seas go. The fishing in it is generally okay but I feel like other seas are better, and it does seem to have quite strong currents. I do fish recreationally, and have a small boat, so I felt those were relevant points to make to others who may also fish in small boats.
Where did the Tasman Sea lose points? And how would you rate other bodies of water in comparison?
It’s cold, and can be quite rough at times so definitely not a five-star sea. Parts of the Pacific would be maybe 4 or 4.5, where the water is warm, clear, and has lots of sea life. Maybe some of the Caribbean too—but I'd have to go and have a look before I could do a review.
How do you feel when people write obviously joking reviews?
I think as long as it’s done in a fun way and not at the expense of anyone or anything then it’s all good—although I was a little harsh to the Tasman Sea, I guess. I'd prefer to read something that made me chuckle over yet another review from someone complaining about how their underpaid waiter didn't smile enough or whatever.
The purpose of a review should be to inform and/or entertain, but it's become a way for people to avoid direct conflict and complain publicly without context or right of reply, which is often unfair and can be harmful. They don’t tell you anything other than that the person writing it didn't like something.
Cameron Naghdi, Portland, Oregon. Reviewed the approach to the Korean Demilitarized Zone
Hey Cameron, do you remember writing this review?
Honestly I do. Full disclosure, I was drunk and messing around with some buddies. I left a few other reviews hidden around Pyongyang too, detailing a Hangover-like trip through North Korea. It was all done as a joke. I remember joking to my friends that I'm doing my part to keep up international relations.
How do you feel about genuinely negative reviews?
As for people who just complain or complain to hurt someone, those people suck. But it’s just part of life; have to take the good with the bad in the end.
Giorgio Billi, Reggio Emilia, Italy. Reviewed the Mt Stuart Lookout in Hobart, Tasmania
Hey Giorgio, do you remember writing this review?
Yes, I remember the spot and the visit. We followed some really clear signs, the place was well organised with parking, but we could not reach any viewpoint; the trees were completely obstructing the way. It was strange because anywhere we went in Australia all lookouts were ideally placed. I cannot judge whether it was lack of maintenance or what. So strange.
What would have made it a 5-star review?
Having the view.
Do you often give reviews to places that aren't businesses?
Yes, I like to leave some comment or a photo, just to give information to fellow travellers. I regularly read reviews, I find them useful, so I return the favour. I tend to give 5 stars as much as is reasonable.
How do you feel about joke reviews?
Well, mine here was intended as a (half) joke review. I’m certainly not bitter about the Council that didn’t look after it. Google Maps for me is fun, and for sharing experiences.
Jessica Benelli, currently living in Melbourne, Australia. On a working holiday visa. Reviewed a phone box in Omeo (population: 406)
Hi Jessica. First things first: what were you doing in Omeo?
We were on our way back from dropping off a friend for her farmwork and somehow stumbled upon Omeo to stay for the night because it was too far to drive back to Melbourne in one day. It was in the middle of nowhere—so much so that, upon looking at the map, a telephone booth had been labelled as a point of interest. And I said, “We should write a review for this telephone booth.”
Was the phone booth as particularly moving as you say it was?
Oh absolutely, I was overcome with emotion. The thought of how many cordless phone-less citizens it had helped over the years, along with the fact it still had a coin slot and was fully functional. That’s a solid piece of engineering right there.
Aaron Davies, Victoria, Australia. Reviewed the stretch of ocean between mainland Australia and Tasmania known as Bass Strait
Hey Aaron. So nine months ago you wrote this 4 star review for the Bass Strait. Do you remember writing it?
I do yes. It's a bit of a laugh to be honest. I'd seen some funny reviews of the Pacific Ocean and I thought reviewing a more local sea would be a bit of fun. I browse Google Maps a lot because I find it interesting to see the world from my chair, so I'll just click on random locations and read up on them too.
I saw you’d written a few other reviews. Are they all joking, or are some of them genuine?
I'd say about half are genuine and half are joking. I like to add a lot of locations to google maps as a joke, and review them.
Do you have a highlight of your reviews? This one's pretty good:
Thanks. Yeah I was browsing around and saw that there were two points claiming to be the most southerly point of Bayside council. I thought that 1: it's a really insignificant place—like I could understand the most southerly point of Australia or even Victoria, but a council area?—and 2: it's disputed. I just thought it was funny.
How do you decide between giving a genuine review and a joke one?
Most of my joke reviews are places that are sort of a meme among friends. Genuine ones are places that Google says I've been to, and I give a run-down of what it's like. For instance, a local secondary school that the actor Chris Hemsworth attended, I did a mildly sarcastic review there.
Have you ever been really pissed off about a place and left a scathing review?
No, I don't think so—I haven't ever really had a terrible experience with a place. The only one-star reviews are usually on places I've added as a joke review. So it's not harming any businesses, if that makes sense.