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Old 13th Dec 2004, 16:01   #1
HP
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Default Unpaid Critics Rewrite the Rulebook

Am not entirely happy this topic belongs here, but it does seem kinda appro. An article in this week's Sunday Times tackles the pros and cons of amateur reviews - specifically those found on Amazon. You'll find it at the site given below.

All of which got me around to wondering just how many of you good folks are influenced by these. I am assuming (erroneously perhaps) that like me, you will do a fair wack of reading between reviewers' lines, take into account spelling and eloquence of same, and in crude terms, quickly assess whether the commentator in question is someone whose opinion is worth squiddly squat, or more kindly put, is of a similar mindset.

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/newspap...399799,00.html
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Old 13th Dec 2004, 16:13   #2
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I don't often read Amazon reviews, I have to say, but then usually I'm buying books that I already know I want to read. When I do, I'd take the approach you outline above.

Aren't "amateur critics" just people who have a proper job?
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Old 13th Dec 2004, 16:13   #3
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I'm posting the text in its entirety Honey, because the Times online makes all its articles subscription-only after a week, so it's best if we can see it here permanently...

Quote:
Unpaid critics rewrite the rulebook

Anybody can post their opinions of goods and services online, but do the voluntary reviewers among Amazon’s Top 500 carry real weight? James Knight lifts the lid on armchair pundits

Jason Parkes, 30, has just put the finishing touches to his dissertation on Multiplicity and Style of the Biopic, as part of his MA degree in American literature and film at Birmingham University. That’s not why you may have heard of him, though. If the name rings a bell, it is because he might have helped you buy a book, film or album. One of a growing number of amateur critics, Parkes has written 871 reviews on Amazon UK, which, with the 7,354 “helpful” votes from readers, make him the site’s No 1 reviewer in its league table at tinyurl.com/3sjsa.

Customer reviews are changing the way people choose what they buy, and not only on Amazon. Search online for products and within a few mouse clicks, you can find ratings and reviews of everything from cars to cots. The question is: Should you take these opinions seriously? Well, you have to be selective.

Parkes is a member of Amazon’s Top 500, an elite cadre among the thousands who regularly write a few hundred words on whatever they happen to be reading, watching or playing. There is no payment, simply the satisfaction of seeing, and of other people seeing, their words in print. Parkes’s first contributions were on Bret Easton Ellis’s book The Rules of Attraction — “bloody pretentious” (the review, not the book, he now says) — and Hüsker Dü’s album Flip Your Wig.

Amazon world sounds idyllic: a community of consumers sharing their views and experiences, so you need never make a bad buy again. At the touch of a button, you can call up opinions on thousands of books, films, albums and computer games, all written by people like you, but with a deeper knowledge of Alexander McCall Smith, Armenian new-wave cinema or 1970s football anthems.

Yet there is a discrepancy between the rhetoric and the reality. Amazon’s ethos loftily invokes public-reviewing ideals of democracy and community, yet inconsistencies that are often glossed over leave the system open to abuse. You have to query the quality of work in a world where anyone can write criticism, regardless of their qualification or motives.

In the absence of payment, amateur reviewers write overwhelmingly about topics they love. This is why customer reviews work so well commercially: evangelism is the feelgood alternative to a fee. On Amazon, so many items tend to come with a five-star rating that you’d think every book, album, film and game is one to treasure. Perhaps to buy, too.

The site often serves as a cosy love-in for like-minded authors. Another leaderboard reviewer, the author DeborahAnne MacGillivray, maintains a policy of not knocking anything she reviews: “I have seen the impact reviews can have for new writers. I receive several requests each week from writers wanting me to review their work.” Indeed, her reviewing started when an author friend asked her to review her book, which had been panned elsewhere.

The problem is, Amazon would have us believe this is criticism. Reviewers, such as Parkes and MacGillivray, are presented as independent: “These voluntary critics sent us their opinions about Amazon UK items, providing fellow shoppers with helpful, honest, tell-it-like-it-is product information,” Amazon says.

Not even the reviewers buy this argument. “The review is from someone’s fanbase, and not someone with criteria set by an editor,” Parkes says.

Occasionally, however, debate will rage. The new vampire novel from Anne Rice polarised opinion on Amazon in America, culminating in a justification from the author herself (tinyurl.com/ 5z9vt). The fact that she chose Amazon’s reviews board to issue a rebuttal shows how important the medium has become.

Amazon, in fact, maintains an iron grip on the reviews on its servers. After being screened automatically for profanity, work is scrutinised by editors “to ensure that reviews follow the guidelines”, says Greg Hart, director of media products for Amazon UK. Guidelines (tinyurl.com/4b6x7) include being relevant, not giving away endings and not resorting to personal criticism.

There is evidence that, at least in America, Amazon edits reviews. Darragh O’Donohue used to be a leaderboard writer, but gave up after his work was amended. His offence? In one example, a review of the 1962 François Truffaut classic Jules et Jim, he used the word “Nazis” in reference to characters in the film. This was removed.

“Has political correctness reached the stifling point where we can’t even use the word ‘Nazis’ for fear of offending the poor darlings?” O’Donohue asked on the site. “My, you Americans are shy.”

In the UK, strict libel laws result in a play-safe policy and some reviews never appear. “If there’s doubt, the review doesn’t get posted,” Hart says.

The reviewer is not told why unless they ask, and contributors claim the rules are applied inconsistently. “I will post a review and wait. It won’t show up. These same reviews have already been posted in the US, Germany and Canada,” Mac-Gillivray says. “I will e-mail and ask where the review is. Nine times out of 10, I get a reply saying it did not conform to the posting guidelines. So I copy and paste the review word-for-word and send it again. This time, the review they swear is not good enough to post, will be posted.

“This is aggravating and wastes their time and mine. I don’t think Amazon tries to control what is said, but this is shoddy practice, and there is a lack of response when you address them with problems.” Amazon has failed to post 117 of her reviews, a third of her output.
“We try to make the guidelines standard,” Hart says, “but with any review that is subjective, each person may have a different interpretation. There’s inevitably going to be variation.”

Even posting reviews that do meet the guidelines can be hit and miss. The site claims: “Your review will be posted within two business days.” Having submitted three myself, all conforming to Amazon’s criteria, I waited to see what would happen. One appeared after a week, one took more than a fortnight, and the other, for an album that had not yet been reviewed by anyone else, did not appear at all.

The vagaries do not stop there: once a review is posted, unscrupulous reviewers can take easy short cuts to move up the rankings — short cuts that Amazon is powerless to block. “I often send a link to friends, asking them to read my reviews,” says Alex Cholko, 17, from Leeds, one of the youngest leaderboard stars. After posting a review of a Britney single a few years ago, he hasn’t looked back — with a little help from his friends. “I don’t encourage them to vote helpfully for me all the time, yet they usually do because they support my interest and think it’s good that I have a hobby in the Amazon community.”

This leaves the system open to claims that it is home not to the best writing, but to the most popular reviewers. Massaging ratings “is certainly possible”, Hart concedes. “There’s a risk that people are trying to manipulate standings. There isn’t a lot we can do to stop that.”

Finally, there is nothing to stop authors and publishers plugging their own books and slating others. Hart refers to “review wars” that have erupted between competing authors and publishing houses. “There’s nothing we can do. With an anonymous review, you don’t know whether it has been left by the author or the publisher. We have to rely on the community to alert us if that’s the case.”

A new feature, Real Names, has been launched on the American site, requiring greater transparency from reviewers about their identities. Hart declines to say whether this will be introduced to Britain.

Amazon opened the floodgates for public reviewing. Countless specialist sites now invite consumers to rate goods from shampoo to savings accounts and garden shears. The likely lasting effect is uncertain, however: will it lead to more sites such as www.carsurvey.org, which has thousands of owners offering the kind of opinions — good and bad — that come only with years of driving?

What does Amazon’s leading reviewer think? “Generally, I see the notion that anyone can be a critic as a positive thing,” Parkes says. “It lets people express their passions, and the so-called ‘punter review’ has led to me getting mostly positive e-mails.”
As number 63 (at time of writing) in Amazon's top 500 reviewers, I can confirm that it's pretty much one big party up here - loads of freebies constantly being delivered by publishers, studios and labels eager for our words of wisdom, to the big house I share with all the other top 500 reviewers. Of course Jason Parkes (who, I've often thought, really must have not a lot to do) is right to say that the reviews are of little value, or most of them are. Particularly for music, you tend only to get reviews from fixated fans who would love a fart in a particle accelerator if it was committed to tape by (say) Blink 182, and the level of critical scrutiny for them tends to be lower than for book reviews in general. Parkes's reviews are of course helpful, as it's always clear from his reviews that he is well read/listened and provides plenty of context and comparison so you can tell if something's to your taste even if it's not to his. Which brings me to the point I once raised before, which is the irritating habit most Amazon customers seem to have of misreading the question "Did you find this review helpful?" and thinking it says "Did you agree with this review?" Thus positive reviews get loads of helpful votes and negative ones don't (because by and large more people read reviews, I think, after they've bought the book than before.) As I pointed out, perhaps unnecessarily profanely, here, most reviews are helpful, even if only for telling you about the mindset and medication of the reviewer.
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Old 13th Dec 2004, 18:04   #4
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Default Re: Unpaid Critics Rewrite the Rulebook

Quote:
Originally Posted by HoneyPotts
All of which got me around to wondering just how many of you good folks are influenced by these.
I can only hope they are influenced, Honey.

(By the way, how did Coly manage that pint-of-beer emoticon elsewhere? Because I owe JS several.)

To be honest, I think the public can be credited with enough intelligence to figure out which ones are by desperate authors trying to puff up their own work. No-one in particular in mind there, of course.
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Old 13th Dec 2004, 18:16   #5
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Default Re: Unpaid Critics Rewrite the Rulebook

Quote:
Originally Posted by wshaw
(By the way, how did Coly manage that pint-of-beer emoticon elsewhere? Because I owe JS several.)
Do you mean this one?
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Old 13th Dec 2004, 18:27   #6
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I feel thirst just looking at it.
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Old 13th Dec 2004, 18:38   #7
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I do read the Amazon reviews and I think that one has to gather a bit more information before making a decision about a particular book. I tend to read the critics reviews (several sources), take into consideration who the author is, read an exerpt (if possible) and THEN check out the readers reviews on Amazon. I have also found that, the longer the book has been in print, the more accurate the reviews have been. This isn't easy when one wants the latest publication right away.

Just as often, I question some of the well known critics, as they have given false tips quite a few times. I have had more success with Amazon reviews than not. Of course there is the occasional stinker.........

I am most intrigued by the books that, when reviewed by readers, get either 5 stars or 1 star. For some odd reason I tend to like these books.

Overall I enjoy having access to what other readers are thinking. As for the authors who are toting their own publications, this is where the time thing comes in. If one is willing to wait a little longer and give the "real" readers time to respond, one gets a better perspective.
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Old 13th Dec 2004, 18:44   #8
HP
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Default Unpaid Critics Rewrite the Rulebook

Thanks for pasting up the full article, John. Sadly, the online version does not include the paper's rather large colour photo of the aforementioned Mr Parkes (a pleasant-enough looking chap - well, he's smiling, anyway - at being Amazon's no 1 reviewer, no doubt; a sort of cross between the comedian Ross Noble and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall without his specs. Does that help? Probably not.)

To answer my own question, I must confess I do read Amazon's reviews when considering whether to order a book or not, working on the principle that anyone who can find the energy to post them, deserves the courtesy of being read. Besides, a review well written affords much pleasure in its own right. Yet I must confess that being as riddled with prejudices and conditioned responses as the next (wo)man, I am more than capable of ignoring those opinions that gainsay my original inclinations, and falling upon those that concur with my own, with an internal cry of 'here's someone who knows their Austen from their Archer. So much for an open mind, eh?! However, until reading The Sunday Times article, naive madam here, hadn't taken into consideration that unscrupled authors may be waxing lyrical about their own efforts in order to boost sales, or worse - denigrating their rivals' work to dissuade potential customers. (Beggars belief, doesn't it? Although, insecurity is not exactly an unknown handicap amongst the scribbling fraternity.)

Now, a couple of questions to finish on for John: (1) do Amazon, do you think, set a ceiling perhaps on the number of negative to positive reviews a book/album can carry - given that their mission must always be always be to shift stock as effectively as possible? And (2) what books/cds have you recently reviewed? Give us a list, sir and am sure your pals at Pal can see to it you give Mr Parkes a run for his money for the top reviewer slot :wink:
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Old 13th Dec 2004, 19:03   #9
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This might get you to a list of my reviews. They're mostly the same as the ones on Palimp of course. Unfortunately you can only vote them helpful from the original product page, not this list, so you would have to click on the book title, find my review, vote it helpful, and then back-back-back your browser to the list to do the next one. Er, not that I've ever done it myself, ahum. Still, if you all loved me enough...

To be honest I doubt Amazon do set a ceiling on positives-to-negatives as that would be too organised for them (not their strong suit, as anyone will know who has submitted a review only for it to disappear into the electronic ether) - even their editorial reviews are pretty even-handed.
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Old 13th Dec 2004, 19:15   #10
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Say no more, my son, say no more ..........! (said with a tap of the nose and in best Arthur Daley below-the-counter whisper)

Actually am rocking on my chair, typing this. Howard Jacobson's Coming from Behind - reviewed by our inimitable Self under the heading: A Painful Entry ... in the journal of academic life

Fabulous.
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