Amazon Reviewers

I had lunch with Lisa Ede today and we talked about weblogs, Amazon reviewers, podcasts, and more. I always leave our conversations with a lot to think about. She's studying citizen reviewers—those folks like you and me who offer opinions on products at Amazon or on our weblogs. She recently gave a talk called Online Citizen Book Reviews and the Circulation of Cultural Power and posted the text to her weblog—...my ISHR talk.

In her talk she asks a very interesting question:
What motivates someone to submit the 1,282nd review of The Poisonwood Bible to Amazon.com?
And I stumbled across a similar question on the Freakonomics authors' blog in a post called Why do people post reviews on amazon?:
Take the latest Harry Potter book, for instance. It has been out about a week. So far there are 1,385 reviews at amazon, and another 385 at bn.com. What's in it for reviewer 1,385?
I thought it would be fun to try to answer this question, because I think what motivates reviewer 1,385 or reviewer 1,282 is very similar to what motivates an anonymous blogger to post about what they had for lunch today. (I had a ham and cheese sandwich.) I came up with three potential motivations:

I think one motivation for reviews in general is building reputation, though it's not a great answer for reviewer 1,385. The chances a review in the middle of the stack will be read are low, so it's probably not a good strategy to post reviews to popular books if you want to bolster your Amazon reviewing identity. Also, it's no easy task to break into the Amazon Top Reviewer list, though it may be easier to gain fame/reputation with a body of offbeat reviews.

Another possible motivation—and you'll have to stick with me on this one—is that some might want to more closely tie their identity with a particular product. Because our identities are often tied up with the products we buy, music we listen to, books we read, it makes sense that some may just want to add a piece of themselves to an official page for a particular product. It's a bit like leaving an offering at a shrine for a particular deity. This is basically the concept of commodity fetishism, and I think Amazon benefits from this effect.

Another potential motivation occurred to me after reading about Jeremy Heigh's distinction between conversation and philosophical voyeurism on a kottke.org post in The present future of conversations. I think an act of philosophical exhibitionism can help people organize their thoughts or simply help them feel they're contributing to the common good. If I expose my thinking (as I'm doing now), and it sparks someone else's interest, or leads them down another path, I've contributed something to the world. And if I can explain to someone else why the Harry Potter book is good or bad, I make those thoughts more concrete in my own mind.

Lisa likened the 1,282nd review to the scene in Network where everyone throws open their windows and screams, I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore. And I do think there could be a social motivation that's trying to ease a feeling of isolation.

So now that I've tried to gain whuffie, paid homage to Amazon by associating my identity more closely with it, and now that I've helped myself clarify my thoughts by exposing my internal monologue—and hopefully helped others in the process—I can end this post.

Comments

Hi Paul,
Lisa here. How cool that you followed up on our lunch conversation by posting your thoughts here.

Everything you say makes complete sense to me. I'm especially grateful to you for working through some possible responses to the question I posed.

But I'm wondering about my own analogy with the scene in Network where people throw their windows open and scream. In that scene, people are expressing frustration and only frustration--whereas I think that something more positive is going on with most Amazon.com and other online book reviews. (I'm actually interested in all kinds of reviews, but my study focuses on book reviews.)
What holds up is the desire to express themselves, but I think the analogy falls through after that.

BTW, I really loved the way you "performed" your responses to my questions in your final paragraph. Very elegant!

Lisa


I guess I view that scene in Network as making a group apparent. All of those people were isolated, watching TV in their own rooms. And the people didn't have a sense of the presence of other people. But when they went to their windows and shouted, suddenly they realized they weren't alone when they heard others shouting. That could just be my take on it, but I think there's something to posting on weblogs and on Amazon as a way to reach out and make a larger group apparent.

If there are others like me, when we want to review a product, we don't think to look at the number of reviews that have been submitted so far. When I scan the product's first page, it will only show a handful of reviews, maybe three or four, and a dimwad like me thinks that's the <em>total</em> of reviews right now (since I wasn't trained to look for a total number of reviews that are buried deeper in the product's page). I have left a review thinking it's the fourth or fifth review, not realizing it's the fiftieth or sixtieth.
it's possible, though, that the 2nd and 3rd reasons you provide are really an extension of the same thing. think of it in terms of, instead of reviewing a band's album, wearing a band's t-shirt. you figure that the artists that you associate yourself with are a representation of your personal philosophy, therefore broadcasting your association with that artist is a means with which to state (at least an aspect of) your philosophical views.

reputation building is a little harder to tie in to the same core motive, but perhaps if we think about it this way: we all maintain a certain sphere of influence in which we (perhaps passively) assert our tastes, thoughts, and beliefs. is 'reputation building' somewhat synonymous with expanding your sphere of influence?
Some more reasons why someone would post a review as 1,202nd:
- He or she might believe it will add to some computed reputation/ authority score now or in the future (indeed, it may)
- For some reason, he might not realize he's 1,202nd
- He might point his friends to his reviews, saying "take a look at number 1,202"
- He might use the Amazon API to create a site with nothing but his own reviews, and he thus might be using Amazon as an external data storage service (hmmm, I'm getting ideas here...)
- He might be believing (I don't know if that's true) that reviews are sorted in reverse chronological order, thus making his review the first to be read for some time
- He might be adding specific search key words which lead him to the assumption that in a specific Amazon search mode, his review will turn up first
- He wants to lower/ increase the average score and got the math wrong, thinking 1 of 1,202 would matter...
I haven't checked this, but if I was designing this system, I would display the reviews as following:

1. Pick out x number of reviews other people find useful.

2. Make sure there is a mix of positive and negative reviews, perhaps somehow matching the ratio of the stars the product has received.

3. Pick out a random review that hasn't yet been rated by other users.

With the 3rd one active, it won't matter how many reviews the product has gotten as long as there are many people viewing the site, and logic says that the more reviews a product has, the more people that are looking at the page and hence it is likely that ALL reviews will eventually be read.

4. Search engines collapse hierarchy. Perhaps someone will read the review who has searched for specific key words.
I agree, "an act of philosophical exhibitionism" can "contribute something to the world." Isn't this blogging as we know it?

I'm with you. Philosophical exhibitionism is important -- for at least three reasons. It gives us our voice back. It gives us incentive to think again. And it gives us an opportunity to be lauded and chastised.

It's important for blogging, for Amazon ... even for Ebay. It puts us "out there" when we've been "in here" for so long.

But is what we have on Amazon or blogs the same as being heard? Isn't exhibitionism just out bound information? Somebody else has to pick up to be heard. And to communicate, someone must listen.

If I was the 1,282nd reviewer ... I'd be exhibiting. Throwing in my bit. Making sure I keep my voice -- like Captain Slocum talking to himself on the Spray.
Is it too late to add anything here and not seem like the 1,282nd reviewer?

To put it simply everyone wants to be heard or believe that they are being heard. It's safe to say that certain people out there feel that someone will find their review helpfull or important and then they will be special because of that despite the thousands of previous reviews.

Also, I just skipped every comment after the 1st one to jump to my post. Never underestimate peoples disregard or vainglory.
Also people like participating in conversations, and Amazon reviews of controversial books or movies often turn into a very subtle conversation. Amazon forbids directly commenting on previous reviews, but if you read them in order you'll often find themes crop up.

i.e. One person will review a book/movie strongly in one direction and will bring up points which weren't brought up in any previous reviews, then suddenly the next few reviews to disagree will confront and counter those ideas. Then a spate of counter-counter reviews will appear.

The conversation moves foward very slowly due to Amazon's rules of not directly referencing previous reviews, but it does move foward.

You can see this in action most easily in the reviews for popular political books.
Remember that the 1282th review is used to rank the book/CD/product/etc. People like to help sort things out.

BTW, I got my current job because someone liked the reviews I wrote.
Another thought...

If you use a reviewer's 'about me' link, you can see all of that reviewer's contributions. In a lot of ways, their list of reviews represents a blog. From this list, one can see the day to day reading habits of another human. The fact they have submitted review 1282 of Henry Potter's latest adventure is irrelevant when the data is presented in this format. As we all know, a blog is one of the most valuable data representations known to mankind.