There’s an interesting article in today’s New York Times about organizations that pay people to write positive online reviews, as well as the groups that are trying to figure out a way to keep these fake reviews from flooding internet retail and advisory sites.
Increasingly, companies are relying on customer reviews from sites like Yelp, Amazon and TripAdvisor to sell their products or attract visitors to their establishments. No surprise, then, that a business of “fake” endorsements would spring up. Now, the web is cluttered with reviews that, though written by real people, are not genuine in their support or are composed by friends, family or those who have been paid to write them. Often, these reviewers have never even read the book or visited the hotel in question.
The NYT piece is worth reading, as it talks about what’s being done to counteract this trend. But even if we do figure out a way to stem the tide of fake reviews, it would do nothing to prevent bias or inaccuracies in personal reviews. Like many librarians who work in collection development, I frequently look at the review breakdown of books on Amazon before deciding on what to order. Working in a small library with a limited acquisitions budget, we have to choose carefully what titles we purchase. And, while we try to focus on what people want to read, as opposed to focusing only on quality books, we are of course affected by reviews, both critical and personal. In fact, I often look more carefully at negative (1- and 2-star) reviews to see why people did not enjoy a particular book.
Although negative reviews are more often written by “real” people, that doesn’t mean they are better. As anyone who reads Amazon customer reviews knows, many of the negative posts are reactions to either the price of the Kindle edition or broad objections to the content. It must be very frustrating for an author to see many negative reviews of his or her work based solely on the price assigned to the electronic version by a company with which they have no direct involvement. The problem of objecting to content is equally frustrating: any book on politics, for example, will feature scads of negative reviews from those with opposing ideologies. It’s safe to say that very few of those reviewers have given the title an honest, objective read. Another example is teen literature, where books that have any content that parents could possibly object to — basically any book ever written for a teen audience — are reviewed as trash or even pornography. I came across a good example at work this week: one reviewer of the teen fantasy novel Once a Witch, by Carolyn MacCullough, a book which is, by all reports, far tamer than many other similar titles, spoke of “nasty garbage and filth” because the teenage character drinks, smokes and there is a mention at one point of a condom.
It is easy to object to a review like this, because it reflects an attitude that is out of touch, old-fashioned or ignorant. Yet as a librarian, I must be aware of and sensitive to the many opinions that differ from my own. The fact is that many parents would likely agree with the reviewer.
One benefit of a review like this is that I can read it, decide that most teens are already aware of cigarettes and condoms, check the responses to the negative review, and make my own decision about purchasing or reading the book. At the same time, a parent who may object to the depiction of teen drinking or smoking, or who may think that the word “condom” is what makes teens want to have sex, can find out that these things are included in the book, and avoid that title for their kids. While I may disagree with this decision for many reasons (the kid will still find the book if she wants it, the arguments are unrealistic, etc.), I as a librarian need to at least pretend to respect the parent’s decision.
What do you think, friends? How reliant are you on online reviews? Are you scared off by negative reviews? Do you think you can tell a real review from a fake review? Do you write fake reviews? Tell us!