April 12, 2008
Pollution as revenge
One of my students alerted me to a recent dramatic episode. Author and psychologist Cooper Lawrence appeared on a Fox News segment and made some apparently false statements about the Xbox game "Mass Effect", which she admitted she had never seen or played. Irate gamers shortly thereafter started posting (to Amazon) one-star (lowest possible score) reviews of her recent book that she was plugging on Fox News. Within a day or so, there were about 400 one-star reviews, and only a handful any better.
Some of the reviewers acknowledged they had not read or even looked at the book (arguing they shouldn't have to since she reviewed a game without looking at it). Many explicitly criticized her for what she said about the game, without actually saying anything about her book.
When alerted, Amazon apparently deleted most of the reviews. Its strategy apparently was to delete reviews that mentioned the name of the game, or video games at all (the book has nothing to do with video games). With this somewhat conservative strategy, the reviews remaining (68 at the moment) are still lopsidedly negative (57 one-star, 8 two-star, 3 five-star), more than I've ever noticed for any somewhat serious book, though there's no obvious way to rule these out as legitimate reviews. (I read several and they do seem to address the content of the book, at least superficially.)
Aside from being a striking, and different example of book review pollution (past examples I've noted have been about favorable reviews written by friends and authors themselves), I think this story highlights troubling issues. The gamers have, quite possibly, intentionally damaged Lawrence's business prospects: her sales likely will be lower (I know that I pay attention to review scores when I'm choosing books to buy). Of course, she arguably damaged the sales of "Mass Effect", too. Arguably, her harm was unintentional and careless (negligent rather than malicious). But she presumably is earning money by promoting herself and her writing by appearing on TV shows: is a reasonable social response to discipline her in her for negligence? (And the reviewers who have more or less written "she speaks about things she doesn't know; don't trust her as an author" may have a reasonable point: so-called "public intellectuals" probably should be guarding their credibility in every public venue if they want people to pay them for their ideas.)
I also find it disturbing, as a consumer of book reviews, but not video games, that reviews might be revenge-polluted. Though this may discipline authors in a way that benefits gamers, is it right for them to disadvantage book readers?
I wonder how long it will be (if it hasn't already happened) before an author or publisher sues Amazon for providing a nearly-open access platform for detractors to attack a book (or CD, etc.). I don't know the law in this area well enough to judge whether Amazon is liable (after all, arguably she could sue the individual reviewers for some sort of tortious interference with her business prospects), but given the frequency of contributory negligence or similar malfeasances in other domains (such as Napster and Grokster facilitating the downloading of copyrighted materials), it seems like some lawyer will try to make the case one of these days. After all, Amazon provides the opportunity for readers to post reviews in order to advance its own business interests.
Some significant risk of contributory liability could be hugely important for the problem of screening pollution in user-contributed content. If you read some of the reviews still on Amazon's site in this example, you'll see that it would not be easy to decide which of them were "illegitimate" and delete all of those. And what kind of credibility would the review service have if publishers made a habit of deciding (behind closed doors) which too-negative reviews to delete, particularly en masse. I think Amazon has done a great job of making it clear that they permit both positive and negative reviews and don't over-select the positive ones to display, which was certainly a concern I had when they first started posting reviews. But it authors and publishers can hold it liable if they let "revenge" reviews appear, I suspect it (and similar sites) will have to shut down reviewing altogether.
(Thanks to Sarvagya Kochak.)