I had the idea for this post over a month ago after seeing a Slate article about the “epidemic” of niceness in online book culture. Their point boiled down to whether all the friendliness on social media made people feel they couldn’t say bad things about books.
I was going to write about how, yes, I think that is the case. We form our cliques, our tribes, our indie groups, and we want to be supportive of each other.
Positive or Negative, Fake Is Fake
In those groups, I’ve seen all kinds of questionable behavior where authors think they’ll get a pass because they’re all “friends.” And it’s true. We don’t want to be disliked, so we’re less likely to call people out when they’re a member of our group. Genuine support is wonderful, but the push for quid pro quo reviews and superficial likes and votes dilutes the usefulness of review sites for readers.
On the other hand, I’ve also seen plenty of people (authors and non-authors) behaving badly with false accusations, voting down good reviews, voting up their diatribes, and mean-spirited tagging and shelving. That concerns me for the same issue as above—it dilutes the usefulness of the sites for readers.
The Extent of Fake Reviews
Unfortunately, my original thoughts for this post are now woefully naïve, as the past month has revealed that some well known authors have paid for positive reviews. In addition, authors, reviewers with agendas (on both the positive and negative side of things), and their supporters have all been found guilty of creating false online identities to “sock puppet” their views and add to the impression of a crowd of support.
It’s gotten so prevalent that some authors have decided to sign a pledge to not use sock puppets. And I have to wonder, is it really that bad that we have to specify that policy? Wouldn’t that be the default? But then, yes, I am a Pollyanna sometimes. *smile*
Are All Fake Reviews Bad?
Barry Eisler brought up some concerns with the pledge, and Joe Konrath has compared the pledge to a witch hunt. Joe then stirred up his own trouble by insisting that one-star reviews aren’t that bad.
I understand his point—to a point. Some fake reviews can be humorous and not destructive. I tweeted a link a few weeks ago to the Amazon UK reviews for a “BIC for Her” pen, and I laughed at many of the fake reviews Joe posted to Amazon:
“Fresh Whole Rabbit: 5 stars, ‘Pays for itself’—’I bought two, left them alone in the refrigerator for a week, and now I have thirty-eight.'”
I also understand his concern that to weed through fake reviews (whether one or five stars), someone would have to police which reviews are legitimate or have other value.
Honest Is Different From Vindictive
However, an honest one-star review is different from a vindictive one-star review and it’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise. So I disagree with Joe’s statement of:
“[W]hat [Ellory] did wasn’t any different than what millions of other one star reviewers did and continue to do.”
Yes, they both have an agenda: to reduce sales. But one focuses on what the reviewer believes is best for the reader (“Save your money and don’t buy this piece of crap.”) and one has what’s best for the reviewer in mind (“If you like xyz type stories, buy such-and-such book instead of this piece of crap.”).
How Should We React to Fake Reviews?
Joe Konrath would have us take a very laid back approach to all these agenda-pushing techniques of fake reviews and sock puppets:
“Fake reviews, like sock puppets and trolling and flame wars, will always be part of the Internet and are no big deal.”
No big deal? Acceptance that something exists and can’t be completely and permanently eliminated is very different from calling it “no big deal.” Bullies have always existed, yet we still try to stop them. Similarly, we call out trolls for what they are. Silence can be condoning.
So while I understand his concern about policing, I have no problem with those who call out fake reviews (positive or negative) and sock puppets. Some people who might be tempted to use those techniques could be dissuaded by the threat of being found out. Social peer pressure has been used to keep people in line for eons.
Fake Reviews Break Trust with the Reader
But let’s backtrack to Joe’s argument about how fake reviews don’t hurt anyone:
“Show me [how] one star reviews harm authors. Hint: Amazon allows one star reviews.”
Just because something is allowed doesn’t mean it can’t cause damage. Vindictive one-star reviews can convince a reader not to buy a book that they might otherwise purchase (and enjoy). Along the same lines, fake five-star reviews (which aren’t obviously intended for humor only) can convince readers to buy a piece-of-crap book, and then those burned readers will be less likely to believe reviews next time.
Various sites have cropped up that claim to showcase vetted good self-published books simply because too many people no longer trust Amazon or Goodreads reviews. And since a major part of the purpose of Goodreads is helping readers sift through the chaff, the inability to trust Goodreads reviews hurts their identity as a company.
The real damage, however, is to the reader. Those who check Amazon and Goodreads reviews for insight into which books they’d enjoy. Those who look to reviews for believability of characters, storytelling, and plot. Those who depend on reviews to point out any hot-button issues they want to avoid.
From this perspective, fake, generic, or quid pro quo reviews are just as damaging to readers as anything vindictive. Perhaps more so. The favor-for-a-favor approach in our social networks drives readers to distrust all reviews.
Fake Reviews—Positive or Negative—Hurt Authors and Readers
Self-published authors depend on those reviews more than traditionally published authors, so fake reviews of all stripes hurt self-published authors the most. They need readers to believe there is a way to discover good self-published books. Even on the traditional publishing side, debut authors depend on reviews more than established authors who’ve already made a name for themselves.
Readers will be less likely to try a new-to-them author if wading through reviews to find the legitimate-seeming ones becomes too much of a hassle. So while I recognize that we can’t stop all the bad behavior, I see nothing wrong with calling out those who don’t act in readers’ best interest (as long as it doesn’t devolve into a true witch hunt).
I also think we can point out the behaviors that break trust with readers to raise awareness among authors. Maybe some authors haven’t thought through their actions to realize how it affects readers. Maybe their giddiness at their new release makes them too excited to question their actions.
Test Yourself: What Kind of Person Do You Want to Be?
One proactive thing we can do is think about where our ethical lines stand when we’re not faced with a dilemma (or that aforementioned giddiness). Joe Konrath posted an interesting “what if” morality test (scroll down to about halfway through his sidebar to get to the beginning of the test—look for the paragraph “So let’s begin.”).
His thought-provoking questions can help us decide what kind of person we want to be. Sure, we might act differently when faced with the situation for real, but if we’re consciously aware of which side of the line we want to fall on, we might have a clearer decision to make. And we might have greater awareness of how our behaviors will be seen in the cold light of logic.
Do you agree that fake reviews hurt readers and authors? Which do you think hurt the most: fake positive reviews, fake vindictive reviews, or are they about the same? What behaviors in regards to review sites do you think break trust with readers? What do you think of Joe Konrath’s morality test? Do you think being consciously aware of the type of person we want to be can help us when faced with a real dilemma?Pin It