Online book reviews on sites like Amazon and Goodreads have an immense power over the sales of newly published work, but how trustworthy are reviews?
A new book about Michael Jackson shows the strength of fan groups and how online reviews can be ‘gamed’ to read a certain way. Michael Jackson’s Rapid Response Team To Media Attacks is a Facebook and Twitter group that leveraged their social networks to ask other fans to write negative reviews of the new book ‘Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson’ by Randall Sullivan. Fans were infuriated by the way he discussed what plastic surgery did to MJ’s nose and the author’s assertion that he died a virgin.
In a larger scope, the situation calls to attention to two problems that help us better understand web culture (or at least the Amazon ecosystem). The first is a question regarding online anonymity. This removes the accountability associated with the reviewer by, for example, putting someone that hasn’t read the book alonside someone that actually did. The second problem is that reviewers’ own opinions might conform to what’s already posted; particularly if they’re being directed from a forum or social media dialogue. The second issue is a common problem in other parts of the web like SoundCloud, where a visitor might think a track is good based on the fact that it appears to have received many plays or likes.
Many recognize online reviews as the closest thing we have online to ‘word of mouth’ marketing, but to what extent can such reviews be trusted? Particularly when you’re dealing with mobs of fans? Amazon has not taken any definitive steps to curb mobs of fans, but they have cracked down on writer’s reviews of other writers and reviews submitted by family members, according to the NYTimes. The article frames this issue succinctly in posing the question: is a review merely a gesture of enthusiasm or should it be held to a higher standard?