A news item from Times Online (“Fake bloggers soon to be ‘named and shamed’,” by Sam Coates), brought to my attention by the ever-attentive Frank Sennett, promises an end to a time-honored practice, at least in Europe:
Hotels, restaurants and online shops that post glowing reviews about themselves under false identities could face criminal prosecution under new rules that come into force next year.
Businesses which write fake blog entries or create whole wesbites purporting to be from customers will fall foul of a European directive banning them from "falsely representing oneself as a consumer".
From December 31, when the change becomes law in the UK, they can be named and shamed by trading standards or taken to court.
The Times has learnt that the new regulations also will apply to authors who praise their own books under a fake identity on websites such as Amazon.
It reminded me of the brouhaha in 2004, when Amazon.ca accidentally outed Dave Eggers as “a reader from St. Louis” (“Amazon reviewers brought to book,” by David Smith, The Observer International):
Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, also admitted writing a review last year praising the work of his friend Heidi Julavits as ‘one of the best books of the year’. He posted it as ‘a reader from St Louis’. But the review appeared under ‘David K Eggers’ on Amazon’s Canadian site last week.
Yeah, it’s kind of a sleazy practice, I suppose, but anyone who expects the customer reviews to be fair, impartial, and professional is missing the point. Hell, a lot of professional reviews aren’t fair and impartial — but because professional reviewers can be held more accountable (at least those of us who sign our reviews), that’s why there’s a distinction made between them. On Amazon.com, you’ll find Booklist reviews under “Editorial Reviews.”
Under “Customer Reviews,” even if it’s not Dave Eggers defending his friend’s book, the reviewers may have uncountable causes, grudges, or friendships informing their opinions. But that’s kind of the point. A customer review should be written by anyone who calls himself a customer. And if you let average people hide behind fake names, why hold writers to a different standard? And even then, what’s to keep Eggers from recruiting the McSweeney’s gang — or even those adorable kids at 826 Valencia — to review on his buccaneering behalf?
Now that I think of it, this new law doesn’t go nearly far enough. I hope that, when U.S. lawmakers find themselves considering similar legislation, they go for the jugular, eliminating the scourge of the customer review altogether. Only when all reviews are written by professionals will we find ourselves safe from the dreaded scourge of bias.
Seriously, I do think that pseudonymously praising your own work or friends’ work is kind of lame, but it hardly seems worth policing. It puts a curious amount of worth on reader feedback options — treating them the same as editorially vetted content just seems misguided.
Ultimately, it would have been cooler if Eggers would have just plugged Julavits’ book under his own name. Not only would he have been safe from future prosecution, I think the bias angle would have been overcome by the “Wow, Dave Eggers writes customer reviews!” angle.
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