New cultural gatekeepers: paid online reviewers

After recently discussing buying Twitter followers, the New York Times explores another new online realm: paid online reviewers who only give extremely positive reviews.

In the fall of 2010, Mr. Rutherford started a Web site, At first, he advertised that he would review a book for $99. But some clients wanted a chorus proclaiming their excellence. So, for $499, Mr. Rutherford would do 20 online reviews. A few people needed a whole orchestra. For $999, he would do 50…

“The wheels of online commerce run on positive reviews,” said Bing Liu, a data-mining expert at the University of Illinois, Chicago, whose 2008 research showed that 60 percent of the millions of product reviews on Amazon are five stars and an additional 20 percent are four stars. “But almost no one wants to write five-star reviews, so many of them have to be created.”

Consumer reviews are powerful because, unlike old-style advertising and marketing, they offer the illusion of truth. They purport to be testimonials of real people, even though some are bought and sold just like everything else on the commercial Internet.

Mr. Liu estimates that about one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake. Yet it is all but impossible to tell when reviews were written by the marketers or retailers (or by the authors themselves under pseudonyms), by customers (who might get a deal from a merchant for giving a good score) or by a hired third-party service.

I am most intrigued here by the possible change in relationship between a reviewer and an author. The article suggests there is some sort of “sacred” distance between the two: the reviewer is free to criticize the work without recrimination. Some reviewers have attained elite cultural gatekeeper status, people who guide decision-making for millions of people. Think of critics like Siskel and Ebert and Robert Christgau who are seen as authoritative figures. Hence, people are upset when they learn that a positive review they saw wasn’t an “honest” opinion but rather a business transaction.

However, let’s not forget that these reviewers also make careers out of their thoughts – they may not have sold out to a corporation or a product but they do have a financial interest. I would argue that this distance between reviewer and author/creator has never really been so sacred and there are plenty of areas where we are used to paid reviewers. If you follow a reviewer enough, you can often learn what they do or do not like. Indeed, some reviewers have become outspoken proponents of certain movements and not others. Is this based on a completely rational, detached perspective? Of course not. Don’t many reviewers interact with the people who are producing the products they are reviewing? Think of blurbs on the back of books: are these truly unsolicited comments or from people who are truly judging the merits of the book? More crassly, commercials often present “reviewers” or “real people” or people made to sell certain products. Perhaps this is simply a sign of our times and will become normal as there is clearly a market for good reviews.

It will be interesting to see how websites like Amazon, heavily dependent on user reviews, works through this issue. I always try to read both the five star and one star reviews when considering a product. Additionally, there are other issues: the ratings can be about the product itself or a particular aspect of the product or about people’s expectations for the product or the shipping or the customer service or something else. I think Amazon could include a few extra questions, as other websites do, that would help one sort through the variety of reviews. Overall, the system is not perfect and we should be aware that we may not be getting the “unvarnished truth,” but at least it is better than going off anecdotal evidence from a friend or two…right?

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