The review and ratings systems of the online world have a problem. That problem is anonymity and the lack of a verifiable online identity to properly identify individuals who leave reviews or make comments.
While it's easy to point fingers at places like Amazon, this is a problem that belongs to most if not all online retailers. Amazon just happens to have the largest (or close to it) online presence and also, as a result, seems to be at the center of controversy more often than others.
What sort of controversy am I talking about?
Really two things:
- Reviewers who hide behind a shield of anonymity while leaving cruel, derogatory, and really quite pointless reviews.
- Shills and sockpuppets, who leave reviews for their own books or even negative reviews for others they perceive as competition.
The last thing I want to do with this post is perpetuate these stories any further. Much like the talk of PED's has completely taken over the great sport of baseball before the 2013 season has even begun, I'm getting tired of hearing about all of it. I don't mean to take a 'bury my head in the sand' tact on this, but there are already a lot of other people who have talked about these subjects and I don't really have anything new to add. I have provided links, however, at the bottom of this post if you want to read all the sordid details.
In this post I'd like to focus on the positive. Namely I'd like to throw out some suggestions on how online retailers can fix their review systems.
Let me preface these ideas with this disclaimer: I know there are privacy, implementation, and flat-out unintended consequences that go along with these suggestions (for example, requiring a person to have purchased the product before being allowed to leave a review precludes someone with an advanced reader copy from posting a review). There simply is no "one solution fixes everything" answer to this problem. But, hopefully someday, we'll have a solution in place that solves the problem with minimal negative side-effects.
So, here goes.
1. No more anonymous reviews
Amazon and many others do not allow anonymous reviews, but Barnes and Noble does. This should stop. It's easy enough to get around this by creating a fake account, but having this simple barrier might at least keep the less motivated from breaking the rules.
2. Require reviews be left by "active" users
I would define an 'active' user as someone who has made at least two (possibly more) purchases in the past 12 months. Again, this is easily gotten around but presents another small barrier to keep some people from dropping a bomb and running away, never to be seen again.
3. Minimum of 5 reviews written before any one review is visible
There is a policy on many, many forums where a person is not allowed to have a signature until he or she has at least made 5 posts. A signature in these cases serves as an identifier as well as, if you're an author, a place to put your book covers and links. In the case of reviews, reviewers should have to establish themselves as legitimate contributors by leaving more than just a single review.
4. Enforce your own review guidelines
Amazon takes a lot of flack for this one. Deservedly so, too, I think. They seem to be, in general, very unwilling to step in and edit or even remove reviews that are in clear violation of even their own guidelines. This should change with better moderation (see #7 below).
5. Expel authors or readers who violate the guidelines
This one will never happen with authors as long as that person is making a lot of sales. Companies like Amazon are public and therefore beholden to shareholders who expect a return on their investment. People like John Locke make far too much money for them to ever take action. However, I think they should. Put the fear in people who create multiple fake accounts then leave themselves a multitude of 5 star reviews. This would apply as well to those who pay money for a single person or company to write numerous glowing reviews for a single product.
6. File charges against authors who perpetuate scams using your system
This goes back to those authors who have either paid for mass fake reviews or used alternate identities of their own to leave glowing 5 star reviews. What this amounts to (in my mind, anyway) is fraud. Fraud is punishable by possible prison time and most definitely a fine here in the United States. I'm no lawyer, but I also suspect profits from said scam would be forfeited. In this case, I would advocate such profit be given to libraries.
7. Provide better moderation
This kind of goes back to #4 above, but online retailers should moderate the content of reviews inasmuch as foul and demeaning language is concerned. The things people get away with when no one knows who they are is ridiculous and they only continue with such behavior when no one is there to stop them.
8. Require identity validation
Another dream, I know. But, unfortunately, I don't think Amazon or anyone else will ever have a worthwhile, accurate, trusted review system until we have established a single online identity registry of sorts similar to how every citizen in the United States has a social security number. With a single online identity you get just the one. It's universally accepted across all web sites, forums, blogs, etc. and undeniably identifies you. Period. No hiding behind fake screen names, accounts, or other chicanery. No more anonymity, either, which I think is a very good thing. You aren't anonymous in face-to-face interactions, so why should you be when online?
OpenId was at one point going to do this for us, but it suffered from poor adoption. Now, with so many users on Facebook and Twitter, those sites are leading the charge. Twitter, however, only verifies a small number of their users while Facebook has stated up to 10% of their user base is fake or "unwanted".
Of course, any identity system has a potential for fraud. Social security numbers are forged every day, so why not online identities? Legitimate crooks will always be crooks. But that's the thing—most people aren't crooks. But give them anonymity and they'll say some wild and crazy things. Take away this anonymity and, well, we might have civil discussions and legitimate reviews to boot.
This is one of those subjects where I get to throw out all sorts of ideas without having to worry about the really hard part, which is their implementation. I'm far from the only one who thinks online review systems are broken, though. At some point someone is going to have to step in and establish some real rules on how people conduct themselves online. You would think people could just act with respect and not game the system. But that'll never happen. Sadly, online retailers will take real action only when it seriously affects their bottom line.