Who is Grady Harp?
January 28, 2008 5:11 AM   Subscribe

The murky demimonde of Amazon's Top Reviewers. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, but I had imagined Amazon's customer reviews as a refuge from the machinations of the publishing industry: "an intelligent and articulate conversation ... conducted by a group of disinterested, disembodied spirits..."
posted by farishta (44 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
posted by farishta at 5:13 AM on January 28, 2008

Thanks for posting this. It seems self-evident that the review system is gamed when the top reviewer has time to read and review more than six books a day, seven days a week. What button do I press to Digg this up? Who watches the watchmen?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:20 AM on January 28, 2008

That explains a lot of the effusive reviews on amazon. My suspicions confirmed.
posted by jouke at 5:27 AM on January 28, 2008

A new venture for Holden Karnofsky?
posted by Skeptic at 5:48 AM on January 28, 2008

This is why I only read the negative reviews on Amazon. Much more informative.
posted by DU at 5:56 AM on January 28, 2008 [3 favorites]

Thank goodness I didn't send Harriet either of my last two books. Her speed reading probably would have led to her misspell my name in my glowing review. Or at least get me confused with whatever else was on her bookshelf for that day.

And I'm with DU above, I look for the negative reviews of products first, just to see what I might be getting into.
posted by willmize at 6:06 AM on January 28, 2008

Reminds me of the way that Malcolm McLaren used to write his own letter of complaint about the Sex Pistols and then post them to the NME.
posted by MrMerlot at 6:24 AM on January 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

I had Amazon's #2 reviewer as a high school drama and literature teacher.

This was before Amazon, or at least before anyone knew about Amazon. I was impressed with the fact that he had seemed to have watched every movie ever made, owned just about every CD you could think of, and knew more about contemporary pop culture than the high schoolers to which it was aimed.

Plus, he picked Sweeney Todd for our class play, which was pretty cool (non-musical version, thankfully).
posted by starman at 6:56 AM on January 28, 2008

I'm in the Amazon Vine program. Every month they send two free things, which I pick from a list of available items - books, health care, electronics, music, etc.. it's pretty nice honestly, these are things that would cost $50 or more had I to buy them, it isn't crap. The electronics in particular can be very high value items. In return, all I have to do is write reviews. It's unclear how Vine members are chosen, I'm ranked around 3500 but there are people ranker higher who were not chosen.

Everything this Salon article says is true, and worse. For example, I've seen self-published authors self-reviewing (bad books) with sock puppets giving dozens of 5-star reviews. I've seen reviewers gang up and help or hurt other reviewers. People getting paid to write reviews.

If reviewing for Amazon determines what you read, than it's gone too far. I review a lot of out of print obscure stuff that might get one helpful vote in 5 years - who cares, I review what I like to read. If your goal is to get helpful votes, than you must review new books for a number of reasons - first reviews get double the number of ranking points, and new books get a lot more people looking at them trying to decide to buy or not, thus more helpful votes.

The ranking algorithm was disclosed by Amazon a while back in the discussion forum - something like, the first 5 votes gets one point, 20 votes get another (all doubled if your the first reviewer). Unhelpful votes likewise remove points in similar block sizes (but never removes more than that review gained ie. 50 unhelpfuls and 20 helpfuls would net out to zero points).
posted by stbalbach at 7:01 AM on January 28, 2008 [8 favorites]

..oh on the ranking, the number of points caps out after 20 votes, so you have to keep writing new reviews to get more points, each review has a limited number of possible points.
posted by stbalbach at 7:04 AM on January 28, 2008

I was actually approached on a job board to write reviews of products "under several aliases" for a prominent web retailer and refused, because it didn't smell right to me. I don't know that the retailer was Amazon, but it wouldn't surprise me if this kind of thing went on all the time.
posted by misha at 7:23 AM on January 28, 2008

I don't know why anyone would be surprised by this. Hell, I always just assumed this went on anywhere public comment/reviews were encouraged. It just seems like a no-brainer, from a marketing point-of-view.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:29 AM on January 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Even if people weren't gaming the system, (which is inevitable), I always assume that the reviews are biased towards the positive for the simple psychological reason that they've already purchased the product. They have therefore 1) shown a bias toward it, and 2) will feel come psychological pressure to validate that purchase by reaffirming it's value.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:35 AM on January 28, 2008 [3 favorites]

farista has set a new standard for FPPs with his/her/its latest opus, Who is Grady Harp? This post was superb. farista shows us his/her/its human/furry/cyborg side, but without succumbing to maudlin lugubriousness or its opposite.

Rating: *****

***** five asterisks
posted by Mister_A at 7:43 AM on January 28, 2008 [5 favorites]

farista has set a new standard for FPPs with his/her/its latest opus, Who is Grady Harp? This post was superb. farista shows us his/her/its human/furry/cyborg side, but without succumbing to maudlin lugubriousness or its opposite.

I found this review VERY helpful.
posted by farishta at 7:52 AM on January 28, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'm going to the courthouse today and changing my name to Murky Demimonde.
posted by Wolfdog at 7:54 AM on January 28, 2008 [6 favorites]

Meh. It's better than the [expletive deleted] who "reviewed" my latest book in the Philadelphia Weekly by commenting on the cover model's hair and making a lot of incoherent remarks about "knit-Nazis" (never mind it's not even a knitting book). I think he did it just to be able to use the term "Adolf Knitler." What a tool.

Review systems of all kinds are inherently flawed, but when you can't even expect the media to crack the cover when "reviewing" your book, well... I don't know what to tell you.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 8:25 AM on January 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

bitter-girl (eponysterical, by the way), after your comment I wanted to take a look at your book, but going to your profile and then your website still left me clueless. You might want to put a link on your blog for your book(s). 'Adolf Knitler' is really lame.
posted by misha at 9:01 AM on January 28, 2008

There's lots more info at the blog of Dayton Daily News reviewer Vick Mickunas, who for some reason is mentioned but not linked in the Slate piece. [Free clue to Slate folks reading this: fix that.] Here's the relevant post with news of "Gunny" retiring after admitting he used 27 different people for his reviews, with lots of great stories about the many bullshit artist Amazon reviewers in the comments. My fave bit:

The #6 reviewer, John “Gunny” Matlock, reviews many highly technical books. His reviews are frequently filled with spelling errors. It was pointed out by some commenters that this reviewer also had a presence on Amazon as a bookseller where he routinely sold the same obscure books he claimed to have just reviewed. Most tellingly, he described the books he had just reviewed as “unread.”

Now *that's* how to bullshit your way to riches through Amazon reviewing. Bravo. More good stuff in the comments here.

I've reviewed books professionally in the past, and almost all of the Amazon Top Reviewers have always seemed full of garbage to me, with their hilarious "But I'm a speed reader!" excuses and generally shallow, idiotic takes on books. I'm usually a big fan of user-generated content, but the "star system" Amazon has deliberately encouraged has become a complete crock. At this point, you're much better off totally avoiding reviews by anyone who lays claim to any special Amazon mantle.
posted by mediareport at 9:11 AM on January 28, 2008

I look for the negative reviews of products first, just to see what I might be getting into

Captain obvious: This same principle might not apply in reverse?
posted by Adam_S at 9:41 AM on January 28, 2008

I'm going to the courthouse today and changing my name to Adolf Knitler.
posted by sdodd at 9:50 AM on January 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

I still find Amazon reviews useful but that's perhaps because most of what I read is stuff that is not likely to be reviewed by large numbers of people.

(i was still a bit disappointed by the article though.)
posted by wittgenstein at 10:30 AM on January 28, 2008

I also find myself almost immediately going to the negative reviews of any product that I am looking at. My rational being; that if I can identify what the worst aspect of something is before I buy it, I can decide whether or not that problematic element is going to be enough to keep me from enjoying or using it. In other words, I make my decisions to buy things based on what other people don't like about the product.

There is probably a technical term for what is wrong with my brain.
posted by quin at 10:48 AM on January 28, 2008

Just read the 'Adolf Knitler' review, if you could call it a review. Of everything I've read in my entire life, nothing comes to mind that's less informative, clever, or enjoyable to read. A part of me just died.
posted by farishta at 10:59 AM on January 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

As usual, I'm shocked! Shocked to find gambling here!
posted by Devils Rancher at 11:04 AM on January 28, 2008

The only reviews I trust are of David Hasselhoff albums. Hot Shot City is particularly good.
posted by klangklangston at 11:45 AM on January 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

I have found that, in general, consumer-generated reviews on the internet are negative. People love to bitch about how this dildo goes through batteries, that trepanning knife goes dull after only a few skulls, etc.

When I wanted to buy a car, I did some research on the internet, and discovered that ALL CARS SUCK IN A NUMBER OF WAYS, but mostly in the transmission area. i bought one anyway. '86 Buick FTW.
posted by Mister_A at 12:02 PM on January 28, 2008

AlterNation, by bitter-girl.com: ***** (1 review)
Being a wearable art designer, I'm always looking for sources of new inspiration. This book fits the bill for new ways on transforming those tired clothes you no longer feel the desire to wear. Its fun, easy and a real joy to make something that looks like it came from a designers line.

Tits Out Teenage Terror Tottys, by Steven Wells: **** (1 review)
Well! How can i describe this book? This is the most demented, shocking thing i have ever read. This is either the best book ever written or the biggest load of rubbish ever. It's a very funny, virtually plotless book. It's literally undescribable. It's definitely not for everyone, but is recommended for headcases everywhere.

Mein Kampf, by Adolf Knitler: ***1/2 (146 reviews)
this book is a book from some person, what the world seems as a bad person. In the most way i agree with is, but not with some things. Cultures are different, there are so many people on this world, with differend looks and looking into the world. Also is there a different between strong and weakniss people. We most protect weakness from the strongest. but also protect cultures and not become on big family. Let every land hold his culture, it is nice to go on vacation and to see the differences with your own land.
posted by designbot at 12:34 PM on January 28, 2008

Speaking of gaming the system, this book has suddenly seen a flood of one-star reviews, and this explains why.
posted by barjo at 12:35 PM on January 28, 2008 [3 favorites]

I found the linked article to be a muscular tour-de-force, subversively erotic and psychologically taut.

I went to school with the author.
posted by flotson at 1:11 PM on January 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

You guys are freaking hilarious, thanks for making my day.

Misha, I don't link to my "professional" (read: books) site from my personal blog (the "bitter" one) because I've gotten crap from my publishers in the past for links between the two. My first knitting books were for tweens, and my shop website (a third and altogether different domain) was selling "The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own" panties. So then some lame-o Christian book club wouldn't carry my knitting books because clearly, I am the devil. Ai-yi.

See the "about" on alternationbook.com for a link to my knitting website if you're interested.

If anyone should be allowed to change their name to Adolf Knitler, it's me. ;)
posted by bitter-girl.com at 1:28 PM on January 28, 2008

Meh. It's better than the [expletive deleted] who "reviewed" my latest book in the Philadelphia Weekly

Oh God, Steven Wells. Listen, you got to realise not to take anything he says seriously. I think he's a great and very funny writer, but he tends to, well, make a lot of stuff up (my favourite was his front page interview with the Sugarcubes for the NME, where he claimed that they ate puffins, among other things). His regular readers will realise what he's doing, and take it with a huge grain of salt.
posted by Infinite Jest at 1:50 PM on January 28, 2008

Of course, the problem with Amazon isn't limited to reviews; plenty of people are gaming the tagging system too (I like this example).
posted by Infinite Jest at 1:58 PM on January 28, 2008

Well, the problem, Infinite Jest, is that he's attacked the feminist bona fides of a whole gang o' women who are making their living doing art/craft-related work. It's one thing when you accuse Bjork of eating puffin-cakes. That's just goofy. But realizing that real feminism is about choice and making decisions for yourself in all aspects of your life is something he's clearly missing the boat on...

Oh, also -- The AntiCraft is now sponsoring a "knit your own Vlad the Impaler" cap contest as a result of this review. Good times!
posted by bitter-girl.com at 3:23 PM on January 28, 2008

I guess I'm a dope, but I've always kinda relied upon Amazon.com reviews.

I, too, have always sought out negative reviews in order to make sure I understood the "worst case" of a purchase. But I'm left with the nagging worry that I bought some things based upon the recommendation of these jerks.

I've even used Amazon reviews as a research tool for things I had no intention of even buying at Amazon. Color me naive.
posted by popechunk at 7:27 PM on January 28, 2008

I like to read the one-star reviews of classics that I dislike. Sometimes they use withering observations to make me feel less stupid for disliking high literature. Sometimes they make me feel stupider for agreeing with m0rons.
posted by Bookhouse at 7:36 PM on January 28, 2008

Infinite Jest: my favourite was his front page interview with the Sugarcubes for the NME, where he claimed that they ate puffins

They probably have, at least some of them. Eating puffins is very common in some parts of Iceland, especially in Vestmannaeyjar. When I was a kid I was once there and ate puffin. Very oily.

Of course, "eating puffin" sounds like a euphemism.
posted by Kattullus at 9:04 PM on January 28, 2008

Of course, "eating puffin" sounds like a euphemism.

There was the famous-for-a-day parody song about the MTV "VJ" entitled "Stuffin' Martha's Puffin," for an example.
posted by maxwelton at 9:17 PM on January 28, 2008

You know who Knitler liked?

Or did I just Godwindize this thread?

(Seconding ANY bad reveiws first. First, I figure some people are going to dislike something and buck the popular trend. Second, if there's an odd quirk of something, it will end up showing up on my watch.)
posted by Samizdata at 9:35 PM on January 28, 2008

Erm, reviews, even.
posted by Samizdata at 9:35 PM on January 28, 2008

Kattalus: interesting, I didn't know it was common in Iceland; but IIRC, most or all of the band were vegetarians. Which was their objection to the article in question.

bitter-girl.com: for what it's worth, the guy's a queer socialist punk who would at least claim to have sympathies with feminism, and he's got a strong record of writing stuff that supports feminist ideals. So I don't think he's missing the boat on feminist thinking in general, though he could very well be wrong in your particular instance.

Like I say, though, he's often not serious, and writes stuff that is either wildly exaggerated or just plain made up - I think he fancies himself as a British version of Lester Bangs or someone...
posted by Infinite Jest at 10:50 PM on January 28, 2008

Just curious: am I the only writer out there who's never (ever) checked her Amazon rankings?
posted by ryansara at 9:13 PM on January 29, 2008

Probably, ryansara. However, in my particular genre (how-to/craft books), it's a necessity, because if a problem crops up with a pattern or there's errata, it will get posted to an Amazon review more often than it will be submitted by the reader to the publisher or author.

Infinite Jest, do you think it's particularly feminist-friendly to decry those who *choose* (emphasis there on choice) to engage in activities that have been traditionally considered "women's work"? I don't. I don't knit because I have to (because if I don't, my family will be running around naked), I do it because I want to. Calling us crochet-nazis is a bit extreme, yeah?

It also proves he doesn't know jack-all about handwork, because traditionally, knitting was men's work (!!! I know, right? It's true, though). And also, crochet wasn't even invented until about 100 years ago, as a means of copying the fancy knitted lace that was out of reach price-wise for most consumers. So the knit/crochet divide could, until recently, have been more accurately framed as a class issue and not a gender one.

But that's a little more data than Captain Snarky could accurately include in his rant... :)

(Oh! and I'm also not even going to go into the recent Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting exhibit because the thought of craft as art would probably blow out what's left of his synapses).
posted by bitter-girl.com at 8:41 AM on January 30, 2008

I wonder if the "crochet nazis" is an attempt to spin the Craft Mafia into something "original" in the writer's mind? It's one thing to call yourself that, it's another thing entirely when someone else bestows that label.
posted by petrilli at 12:15 PM on February 8, 2008

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