In his (Amazon) Prime

Madeleine Pownall with a meta-review, of sorts…

Like most people during Covid times, my Dad has turned his attention to a new hobby in efforts to avoid the impending sense of doom and restlessness that lockdown brings. Unlike most people, however, he has not tried his hand at knitting, banana bread baking, gardening, or cross stitching. Instead, he has spent his lockdown tucked away with his laptop in rural Leeds crafting the art of writing Amazon reviews. 

In the past couple of months, he has furiously reviewed everything from tins of butter beans (“good for substance in a casserole”), HP brown sauce (“if this was a 400 metre race, HP would be across the finish line before Daddies was even on the home straight”), potting soil (“doesn’t fluff up enough”) and sweeping brushes (“mixed feelings about this one”), to AA batteries (“I needed them to turn off the TV remote after I had watched Robot Chicken…but it was all quite exhausting”), cargo shorts (“eight pockets!”) teaspoons (“great looking spoons. I like them”) and rubber egg cups (“bit flimsy”). At last count, there were an impressive 750 reviews in total and he’s now earned himself the acclaim of being an official ‘top 500’ reviewer, with 3,337 ‘helpful’ votes. 

At first, I thought this was all harmless (if not slightly odd) fun, with very little capacity for any intellectual, let alone psychological appraisal of the whole activity. However, it was not until I recently spent a full evening howling with laughter at the length and intricacies of his handiwork that it occurred to me how much psychology was happening here.

There is something deeply humanising about attending to and showcasing the most seemingly insignificant and unimportant household objects. These reviews, despite the fact that they began purely as a cure for lockdown boredom, make for truly fascinating, and even joyful, reading. They celebrate the mundane in a way that we are not accustomed to. I have found myself crying with laughter at his 500+ word inspections of household items in a way that I haven’t laughed before. They read like thoughtful, important pieces that have been crafted in a way that rejoices in the function each (incredibly boring) object and its capacity do so something. For example, in his rapidly growing portfolio, there’s a 600-word appraisal of a new tube of toothpaste, which meticulously and dramatically documents the process of product selection, ordering, unpacking, and that very first use. I was hooked.  

As it turns out, there is also some good empirical evidence to suggest that these reviewing rituals serve an important psychological function (who knew?). In 2014, for example, a study published in Psychological Science helped me make some sense of both my Dad’s love for crafting reviews of boring products and my excitement when a new one is posted. Across four studies, the authors note that ‘documenting everyday activities’ is important, because it affords us the capacity to rediscover these pockets of time later in life (Zhang et al., 2014). This rediscovery of mementos from our past – be it photographs, letters, or an online review of gardening gloves, is both fun, satisfying, and psychologically useful to stay connected to our memories.  

This reflects the psychological literature which also notes how important and necessary celebrations of the ‘ordinary’ are to our long-term happiness (Bhattacharjee & Mogilner, 2013) and sense of community. As I’ve written about before since the start of Covid, we are all now so longing to feel connected to other humans. In a funny way, there is something about these overly-detailed, heavily convoluted, pun-filled online reviews that sparks a feeling of intrinsic, and quite remarkable, connectedness. This weird Amazon bubble is a micro-community of sorts. Online communities have been subject to much psychological research and practice over the years, because they can offer sanctuaries of peace and togetherness away from the chaos that is, well, everything else. I never expected to feel such deep humanness and hopefulness from an Amazon review. 

I’d like to end with one of the first ever postings that is now my all-time favourite review. It makes me laugh every time it crosses my mind: to a product listed simply as ‘Shark Mug’, my Dad writes “Nice mug. It’s got a shark on it too”. 

- Madeleine Pownall is a PhD student and Postgraduate Teaching Assistant at University of Leeds
[email protected] 

You can find Mark Pownall on Amazon under the username ‘papapownall’. 

Editor's note: This reminds me that I was once keen to pull together a special collection on the 'marvellous mundane'. For a number of reasons, all too mundane to go into, that hasn't happened. Still keen though.

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