Paul Laity at The Guardian has a look at the recent paid review scandal on Amazon and what it might portend for the future of “traditional” reviews. Perhaps not surprisingly, even though the piece opens with a headline proposing that reader reviews might be “killing off the critic,” and even though it admits that only a tiny fraction of reader reviews are corrupted by payola or family-or-friendola, it concludes with a smug self-assuring pat on the back that, no, professional critics’ reviews are more reliable than Amazon reader reviews because they’re all professional and stuff.
I’ve seen this sort of thing before, in partisans of professional encyclopedias waxing smug because a study showed Wikipedia to have more factual errors per page than Encyclopedia Britannica. (Never mind that the Wikipedia articles were on average longer than Britannica’s so there were actually fewer errors per text length—and the errors were corrected as soon as they were noticed, while Britannica’s had to wait for the next edition.)
So Amazon reader reviews suffer from the tragedy of the commons. So what? Maybe they’re not up the standards of a “professional” review, but there sure are a lot more of them, including for thousands of self-published books most “professional” reviewers will never touch. Anyone with a lick of reading comprehension and discrimination will be able to separate the wheat from the chaff on his own anyway.
Frankly, I think people don’t give Amazon reviews enough credit. Really, we should be marveling at the democratization of the review. We don’t have to rely any more only on what the “experts” think. With Amazon, we can hear from anyone. Literally anyone, whether they bought the book at Amazon or not. Amazon doesn’t care if I bought it from them, or Barnes & Noble, or a used bookstore, or even haven’t bought it at all but want to say what I think about it.
You hear people calling from time to time for Amazon to disallow reviews from people who didn’t buy the product from them, but Amazon has so far been wise enough to realize that would be a suicidal move—just as Jeff Bezos was wise enough not to listen to the people who were horrified that the site allows negative reviews as well as positive. Much as people like to fear that it is, Amazon is not the only place an informed shopper might buy something. (Indeed, DeepDiscount is frequently cheaper than they on videos and offers free shipping with a lower minimum purchase besides.)
Restricting reviews only to people who bought something on Amazon would really cripple the ability of many products to get any reviews at all—and the more reviews any product gets, positive and negative, the more informed a decision any buyer will be able to make. The negative reviews give the positive ones credibility, and vice versa. In fact, one study suggested that Amazon reader reviews are, on average, as good as professional reviews.
And if some people leave one-star reviews of items they will never buy based on principle, who is to say such a review is any less valid than a five-star one of someone who liked it? The five-star reviewer is explaining why the work is valuable to him, and the one-star reviewer is explaining why the work is abhorrent to him. If it’s abhorrent based on something that leads him not actually to buy it, is that abhorrence really any less legitimate than the delight of someone who loves it? (Though, to be fair, there’s kind of a thin line between this sort of behavior and slacktivism.) Frequently the sort of people who leave one-star reviews don’t feel they can make their opinions felt effectively in any other venue. And anyone who actually bothers to read the reviews will soon be able to tell for himself which are “legitimate” or not.
When you think about it, where before Amazon was there any such review forum which attracted reviews by and reaches so many people? Even Laity admits that the majority of these reviews are most likely legitimate—and there are so many more of them than all the professional reviewers in the world could hope to publish. These reviews are a great resource for people looking at buying from Amazon, or for people looking at buying a particular item from a local shop or third party website. You can almost always find reviews for any work you want to consider, whereas professional reviews could range from fairly common to none at all. And if the reviews aren’t “professional,” they’re at least written by people who actually care about the product one way or another, rather than being paid to consider it.
Image from xkcd.