I love the smell of manufactured outrage in the morning.
As posted on her blog and recounted in a Gizmodo story, writer and blogger Imy Santiago bought an independent novel, read it, and tried to post a review of it to Amazon. But Amazon rejected her review, and held firm on the rejection through two rounds of appeals. Amazon said that they had looked at Santiago’s account activity and from it determined Santiago actually personally knew the author of the novel she was trying to review. Hence, Amazon rejected the review on the grounds that there could be a conflict of interest. This seems to be part of a new change in the way Amazon is considering its reviews—probably part of the same changes that have also altered the way aggregate review scores are calculated.
Santiago is up in arms over this new move, and Gizmodo seems to be firmly taking her side (the headline “Amazon’s Review Policy is Creepy and Bad for Authors” seems to be just a bit of a clue). At first glance, it does seem suspicious. How dare Amazon make like a creepy stalker, etc. But when you take a closer look, is there really any “there” there? Something smells decidedly fishy to me.
You see, Santiago firmly refuses to identify the author or title of the book she was attempting to review—nor has she divulged the nature of their relationship. She simply says that as an independent author herself, she moves in the same circles as a lot of other independent authors—but she has not even hinted at the precise nature of the relationship between her and the unnamed other novel’s author. Are they in fact best buddies? Does Santiago follow her on Twitter and occasionally retweet her posts because they’re funny? Does she not even really know the person but just happened to reply to one of her posts once to answer a question? No way to know, because Santiago’s not saying.
But it really makes me suspicious. In a way, it reminds me of the whole deal surrounding Amazon referral links. Let’s say that someone clicks an Amazon link to an item where you added your tag at the end of the URL, like http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00SOFZF08/terrania-20. Then they end up buying something—either that specific item or something else they browse to—during the same shopping session.
If that happens, you’re supposed to get a more-or-less 5% kickback on anything they bought—for every dollar they spend, you get five cents—unless that person actually knows you already. The idea is that you’re supposed to be helping Amazon find new customers, not people who know you already. If they’re a complete stranger, you get money, but if they’re a buddy of yours, you get nothing.
I’ve actually had that bite me before. My brother once made some big Amazon purchases (to the tune of a couple grand) using my tag. When I contacted Amazon support to ask why I didn’t see the kickback come through, they looked up the exact purchase and then told me it was disqualified because Amazon knew that person knew me. But they weren’t going to tell me how or why they knew. Given that I damned well knew it was my brother, I couldn’t exactly argue the point. In the end, I just had to shrug, throw up my hands, and let it go.
How do they determine if someone knows you? Well, Amazon has lots of data. If they’ve ever shared the same physical address as you is probably one clue. Likewise, if either of you have ever ordered things and shipped them as gifts to each others’ address, or other things like that. (As my brother and I had done with Christmas and birthday presents to each other many times.) Who knows? Given how many people buy how much stuff from Amazon and send it to how many other people, it seems likely an awful lot of people have that kind of connection.
But Amazon is not going to tell you about it beyond the simple binary answer of whether or not it can prove you know each other. As many transactions as there are in a day, the amount of paperwork involved would be enormous—and besides, it would help less-honest folks figure out how to cheat the system. In the end, we end up having to take Amazon’s word for it that it knows you know each other, and for the amount of pennies you get from each purchase, it’s probably not worthwhile to quibble over individual transactions anyway.
Moving back from that to the question of the user reviews, I just want to re-emphasize that we have no way of knowing how close Santiago and this other person she tried to review are. They could be almost complete strangers, or they could be on each others’ Christmas card lists. Santiago isn’t saying. She’s just objecting to the whole premise on principle. This seems a little suspicious to me, because as far as I’m concerned, the premise does make sense. If Amazon determines that you and the author of the book you’re reviewing do know each other, honestly, it should be keeping you from reviewing their book.
How many complaints have we heard about Amazon reviews in the past? Cases where people were getting their self-published books reviewed by friends and relatives and no one else, or ones where people like Anne Rice get up in arms over trolls abusing the review process? It sounds to me that Amazon is finally doing exactly the sorts of things people have wanted them to for a long time.
And if Amazon is going by “account activity” to make that determination, it sounds to me like Amazon noticed something like them shipping things to each others’ addresses, just as with me and my brother. It seems a lot more likely it would come from something like that, rather than Amazon just noticing them following each other on Twitter. I mean, what does Amazon even care about Twitter? It has plenty of data involving the ways people spend actual money on each other.
But again, that’s just a guess, because without knowing who the other person is, I have no way of knowing that either. I can just observe that it looks kind of funny Santiago is so willing to make such a big fuss about generalities without coughing up any specifics, such as whether or not she and the other author actually do know each other, and if so to what extent. If they didn’t know each other, I should think she’d at least outright say so, even without divulging the other person’s name.
Of course, Santiago and other authors such as Seanan McGuire are concerned over where exactly the bright line is—how close you can know someone before Amazon objects to your reviewing the book. What if you meet someone at a convention and become friends along the way? When are you disallowed from leaving reviews for each other? You can see how she would be concerned, since if Santiago isn’t divulging how close her connection is to the other author, Amazon isn’t coughing up any details on its part either beyond “account activity.”
And yet, I haven’t seen anyone getting up in arms over how Amazon decides whether you get referral bennies from a given person clicking on your link to an Amazon product—though for all I know, they use the exact same process to make that decision, and they’re never going to tell you why they made a given decision there either.
This smells to me like someone went looking for reasons to be angry at Amazon. But when you get right down to it, there really isn’t anything there.