Thursday, February 26, 2004

The Naked Truth about Amazon Reviews

Now we know for sure what we suspected was true all along: Those fluffy anonymous positive book reviews in Amazon are sometimes written by the author themselves -- or friends or family. All it took was a glitch in the Canadian site to expose who really wrote those reviews.

It goes to show that even when you rate reviews, or rate reviewers, you still have to take any unknown reviewer's work with a big grain of salt. The Amazon review system is not perfect in straddling the line of open access to all readers, and keeping things fair. Maybe it's a result of the tiny pool of actual book reviews in print, and the desire by so many people to get good advice somewhere. See: Oprah's book picks. The old dot-com Epinions seemed to have a nice system, but I'm not sure what Amazon might learn from them.

Anonymous reviewers? Don't trust them. Anonymous auction sellers? Don't trust them. Anonymous sources? Don't trust them. People who sign their name and give some backup on credentials? Trust them.

More - Seems's Canadian Web site, which allows people to publish anonymous reviews of novels, mistakenly published reviewers' real names.

And guess what? A number of authors were caught "anonymously" reviewing their own books. For example, John Rechy, author of the bestselling 1963 novel, City of Night, reviewed his latest novel under the pseudonym "a reader from Chicago." Evidently pleased with his latest effort, he gave it a top score of five stars.

Rechy might have no sense of propriety, but at least he has a proprietary sense. He defended his actions by claiming his novel was unfairly at-tacked by people who (anonymously) condemned it, and he therefore had to defend his intellectual property.

Dave Eggers, author of the immodestly titled A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, obviously agrees. Eggers admitted to reviewing a friend's book positively because he suspected competitors had panned the book anonymously.

Still more - I believe that balance is a good thing, too. But balance doesn't come about through deception. How are readers supposed to trust reviews if they don't know who the reviewers are and what their biases may be?

Lots More.

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