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Knife Reviewers, Drama Queens, and an Appeal to Constructive Dialogue

Here in the last months of 2019, the knife community is enjoying an unprecedented abundance of products and content of, by, and for the community. Many have acknowledged that we live in a golden age of knives, where high speed advances in metallurgy, forging equipment, design software, and the demand for the fruits of such advancements have birthed a world in which perfectly good, very recently esteemed steels like S30V are now regarded as passé and not “premium” enough in a time where one can purchase new, exciting wonder steels like M390 on knives costing hardly $100. That sacrifices must be made in some component of such a knife for the manufacturer to afford offering this steel at such an attainable price point and still make a decent profit seems not to matter so much; nor does the obvious implication that many knife users who regard themselves as part of the knife/EDC hobby (arguably, most who are even cognizant that such a hobby and surrounding community exists) wouldn’t know the performative difference between the steels they salivate over and longtime standard steels such as 154CM.

This isn’t to say that it should matter. After all, the explosion in popularity of the every day carry pocketknife and demand for new and exciting variations on that product has very little to do with an increased need for cutting things — if there’s ever been a time where the average person needed a portable cutting tool less than now, I can’t imagine when that would have been. No, this explosion is a direct result of social media: most markedly, Instagram. I can hear the angry remarks now, but I challenge anyone who disagrees to demonstrate exactly how I’m wrong. If it weren’t for cleverly arranged and edited pictures of the knives that other, seemingly cooler, happier people post on their Instagram pages every day, not only would much of the consumer side of the community not exist, but many, many new brands and custom makers would have never gotten started. And you know it.

And that’s okay! Markets these days aren’t often driven by necessity, and Instagram is responsible for explosions in many more industries than just ours. After all, advertisers have been capitalizing on envy and that primal human need to keep up with the Joneses since long before the internet was even an idea. Instagram, with its entirely image based platform, offers simply a natural extension of that need, and companies were quick to utilize it once Instagram opened itself to advertisers. Even before that, and still today, the amount of free advertising that many companies are receiving due to the pleasure we get out of showing off products we’ve purchased is staggering, and might be one of the greatest windfalls ever received by those companies fortunate enough to benefit from such adoration and unsolicited sharing of their products with new, potential consumers.

So, though some of the causes are a bit comical, we are undoubtedly in a golden age of knives. And while many members of this strange and wonderful knife community will likely never use their blades for much beyond opening packages, cutting tags, and getting likes on Instagram (which is fine; the argument that knives are for doing “real work” and similar claims are about as ridiculous as arguing that a Ferrari owner isn’t a real “car user” unless he drives it to work every day), there are certainly still many of us who are not just looking for a cool or pretty cutting tool, but also one that will work well in the day to day tasks in which we absolutely can’t get by without one. There are also many of us in both categories and all those in between who aren’t willing and/or able to buy multiple knives we’ve never seen or handled in person without doing as much research as possible so that, hopefully, we can avoid purchasing something we hate once we take it out of the box or, worse, once we’ve used it and voided any chance of a return.

But where to begin that research? While consumer reviews can be helpful, I invite you to browse the reviews of some absolute trash knives on Amazon here, here, and here as examples of why consumer reviews don’t necessarily mean much at all. The average knife buyer, even many who are actively collecting and involved in the hobby, aren’t necessarily putting a knife through its paces (as discussed above) and even if they are, aren’t generally sharing their views in any sort of systemized way or through a medium that allows discussion and feedback. An angry consumer can condemn a knife for its “weak” pivot and “poorly finished” blade, while leaving out the fact that they tried to use their $30 folding knife to pry open a metal door. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a satisfied consumer can say that they carry and use their knife every day at work, not mentioning that they work as an accountant and that the knife is mostly used for opening mail. Neither of these things is irrelevant to the specific consumer, but neither are they indicative of the actual quality of the product.

Enter the knife reviewer. The critic. He or she approaches each knife with a system. Often they will document their usage, and will attempt to use their review knives in the same ways to perform the same kinds of tasks, gauging how they handle various chores and hold up over time. Ideally, they’ll study all the key points of a knife’s construction and test them. They’ll disassemble, look for flaws, reassemble, and then do it all again. They learn as much relevant info as they can about the designer, maker, manufacturer, and so on. The reviewer seeks to paint a clear picture of exactly what a specific knife is and what their reader or viewer can expect from it should they choose to purchase it. The reviewer does this, usually spending their own money on what often turns out to be a less than desirable knife, so that others don’t have to. Honest, meticulous reviews are highly valuable; they offer important purchasing info to the consumer, they root out problems with designs and even makers and can encourage improvement, and they drive business to those makers who are doing excellent work.

This isn’t to overstate the importance of knife reviewers; without them, the knife world would spin on, mostly unaffected. And it isn’t to say that reviewers are always objective or correct; there are many times that a reviewer’s biases may come through, and other times where they are demonstrably wrong. No, it is simply to say that in a market extremely crowded with options and viable choices and not enough time or money to try them all, reviewers can play a major role in narrowing those choices down and helping many people feel more confident in and satisfied with their purchases. And this is, of course, true across every industry. The reviewer offers a service, for free, all as part of their enjoyment of the hobby. A few even make a couple bucks at it, but nobody’s making a living. It’s a passion for knives and the production of knife related content played out in a way that serves as an overall benefit to the community.

But some don’t see it that way. Accusations of “shill” and “fake” are all too common, and hostile condemnations of a reviewer’s tastes and opinions are even more common. Nick Shabazz, probably the greatest knife reviewer ever given his methodology, style, reach, and influence, a man who doesn’t take money or ever even keep knives sent to him to review and goes well out of his way to disclose any time a review knife is sent to him — a true rare gem within the knife community — is regularly accused of shilling for various makers. He receives an absurd amount of hate comments every time he expresses any opinion that even borders on controversial. Anthony Sculimbrene, who I contend is one of the godfathers of knife/EDC reviewing, and who is extremely methodical, measured, and thorough in his reviews is also regularly attacked for his critiques, although considerably less than Nick due to not operating much on YouTube. Dr. Frunkey, another knife reviewer well known for his helpful “knife surgery” videos and for his rather eclectic taste in custom knives is the target of some of the oddest hate leveled at any reviewer that I’ve seen, much of which seems to boil down to something like this: “If I could spend what you did on that knife then I would never have it made by that person and with such hideous materials and colors, so…um, you suck.” And of course there are many other major reviewers who receive plenty of hate as well. Even I, with my paltry two reviews, a reviewer no company would pay for anything except maybe my domain name, have been accused of being a shill on a handful of occasions for defending makers and individuals coming under what I believed to be unjustified attack.

Boohoo, right? I agree, it’s really not the biggest deal. Negativity is the necessary other side of the same coin as positivity. And of all the dark spots in the knife community, there are many that are worse than the weirdly disdainful attitude some people have towards reviewers. I do believe however, that this is one of the many things right now that’s hurting the knife community, mainly because it’s a component and reflection of a tear-everyone-down attitude that’s spreading like a cancer from certain corners of social media. It’s a way of thinking that’s apparently very popular across most of the Western world right now; and it’s manifesting in unnecessarily, unjustifiably abusive treatment of people who simply have different tastes and opinions about things that are inconsequential in the grand scheme of humanity’s current state. And if it were just a bunch of hate comments on reviewers’ videos and a couple of douchey, elitist Instagram accounts I wouldn’t have felt the need to write this, but the negativity is spreading. When people get attention and large followings for being assholes, it inspires other people to be assholes as well in an attempt to acquire a bigger follower count themselves. Social media feeds and inspires attention seeking, for good or bad, and success isn’t dependent on offering anything of quality or value to the world; no, success is practically guaranteed by creating controversy and inviting drama without adding anything of value to the community one inhabits.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but I have to say that the tendency of a bunch of ostensibly manly men who are into collecting sharp, pointy pocket tools to be such drama queens caught me off guard. Everyone has a right to their opinion, and as alluded to above, negative opinions are as important as positive. But we’re not moving the community forward (except maybe towards the brink of a cliff) with vitriolic, toxic comments and posts about how stupid company X is, how bad collector Y’s taste is, and how much we hate maker Z for making something that doesn’t appeal to us specifically. Social media has given us unprecedented access to makers, manufacturers, designers, collectors, and everyone in between; we can share our criticism with people at the very heart of the biggest knife operations in the world with a few swipes and taps of our fingers. That’s incredible. So why not share our criticisms constructively and in good faith? Do we actually want to make the knife community and offerings of the industry better, or are we just looking for opportunities to dunk on each other and get some of those precious likes and shares? I’m not saying we can’t joke around and make jabs at each other; I enjoy some good natured ball-busting as much as the next person. And I’m also not saying that nobody in the community has done anything to warrant some real anger; there are some real scammers and unethical makers that deserve to be run out of the community by a pitchfork wielding mob. What I’m saying is that most of us are intelligent enough to know the difference between something harmless with which we disagree and something that needs to be called out, and most of us also know the difference between offering constructive criticism, making a joke, and being an asshole just for the perverse pleasure of getting under someone’s skin.

I’m probably preaching to the choir here. I don’t really expect the hateful people who I’d like to hear this to change their behavior because some no-name knife reviewer whined about people being mean to each other on the internet. But I do hope that this makes at least a couple of people think. The knife community is a mostly beautiful place, and it’s growing and improving every day. I don’t want new blood, potential consumers, collectors, and makers to be pushed away by the pointless negativity that’s gaining ground here, nor do I want the good people already here to walk away out of exhaustion from all the drama. For what it’s worth, I want this community to act like a community.

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