A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Amazon’s new review policy of rejecting reviews Amazon thought could be potentially biased. In the last couple of days, another news post from a few weeks ago has been making the rounds, explicitly saying that Amazon would reject reviews left by social media “friends” of the author, and that Amazon had ways of telling who was social media friends with whom. A number of authors in my Facebook friends feed have been getting upset about it.
The thing those upset authors don’t seem to have noticed is that this post is from another third party (“Reader’s entertainment magazine”) and seems to be a paraphrase. It does link back to Amazon’s review policy, which in turn links to Amazon’s review FAQ. But the only thing either of those documents has to say that’s even vaguely related to social media is that people who are “perceived to have a close personal relationship” with the author or artist of the item being reviewed will have their reviews rejected. It doesn’t elaborate on the criteria for such a relationship, and I’m not sure where “Readers entertainment magazine” got their information.
Of course, Amazon has been rejecting reviews from social media friends, at least in some cases, for a while now. The thing is, we don’t have any way of knowing whether it rejects all such reviews out of hand, or some, or if there are other criteria entirely. Amazon hasn’t actually said that’s what it’s doing.
But just the appearance that it might be is enough to get authors up in arms. If simply following an author on Twitter or Facebook, in order to keep up with current events, appearances, and other news, is enough to disqualify readers from writing reviews on Amazon, that could eliminate almost everyone who actually really likes the book. It just doesn’t seem like the kind of mistake Amazon would make. And this does tend to make me a little suspicious that news sources that are extrapolating “social media friendship” from “close personal relationship” (or at least not questioning the others who do—something I’ve also been guilty of in the past) may be jumping to conclusions.
I used Amazon’s contact form to send an email to their customer service department asking whether social media friendship was sufficient to cause reviews to get rejected. I got a response back from one “Leonard” on the Communities team who said explicitly, “Following an Author does not indicate a ‘close personal relationship’ and does not violate our review guidelines.”
So there you have it. Or maybe you don’t, because it seems like the terseness of that denial could raise more questions than it answers. (I sent a follow-up question asking for clarification, though it could be hours before I get another response. I’ll update the article if the answer changes anything.) As I noted above, some people have seen their reviews removed because they supposedly have that “close personal relationship” with the author, and the only such relationship they could point to was following them on social media. So what’s going on?
It might be that following is insufficient by itself, but engaging in conversation while following could lead to such a determination, especially if the tone of the conversation is sufficiently fannish. Imy Santiago, the blogger who ran into this issue back in July, did say in a comment here, “I reached out to the author after reading the first book in the series, and ‘fan-girled’ over the author’s work. I started following them on social media. That does not mean I know the author personally.” Maybe the mere following wasn’t enough, but the “fan-girling” was? Maybe Amazon’s software can’t distinguish “fan-girling” from actual friendship and errs on the side of caution?
Maybe the customer service representative was referring to following an author’s fan page, rather than being actual “friends” of the author’s personal Facebook account? (He did say “following,” not “friending.”) A lot of authors don’t seem to bother with fan pages, and just use normal personal Facebook accounts like regular people do—so fans who want to follow them have to “friend” those pages. Perhaps Amazon draws a distinction between whether you follow a fan or personal page for purposes of determining if you’re “friends,” even though many of the actual authors in question don’t?
Or maybe Amazon’s left hand just doesn’t know what the right is doing. In a company that big, it wouldn’t be too surprising, and it’s even been known to happen before—there was that time an Amazon representative refused on free speech grounds to pull a self-published pedophilia manual, just a few hours before said book disappeared once someone high enough up the food chain learned about it.
There’s no reason a customer service representative would even necessarily know all the criteria on which Amazon makes its decisions. Even if someone asks specifically about one of their own reviews being removed, the representative who looks up the case may not have access to any more information than the determination that there was a “close personal relationship” without any explanation of why. The absence of such an explanation would make it easy to jump to conclusions.
So in the end, even Amazon’s denial that just friending someone is enough to trigger review removal doesn’t actually clear the matter up that much. Unfortunately, it seems as though that’s as clear as it’s going to get. As it stands right now, you can’t be sure whether you’re going to have your review permitted or removed until you try writing and posting it. It would be nice if Amazon could try for greater transparency in this process, but it seems unlikely. In the end, clicking the “submit” button with your fingers crossed seems to be the order of the day.