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Sock Puppet Spectacular: Are Online Reviews Completely Worthless, Or Only Mostly Worthless?

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“Nicodemus Jones” was a big fan of bestselling crime author RJ Ellory. His five-star Amazon reviews of Ellory’s books were littered with phrases like “modern masterpiece”, “will touch your soul”, “a magnificent book.” He was less kind to Mark Billingham and Stuart MacBride, both of whom were victims of one-star reviews by “Jones.” Last week, author Jeremy Duns found out why: “Jones” was actually Ellory himself.

He was following an old and well-worn trail. In July, Duns outed another bestselling author, Stephen Leather, as a sock-puppeter. Some years ago, Amazon accidentally revealed a clutch of other authors praising their own work and ripping into others’. Since then, hundreds of other authors have simply bought fake five-star reviews by the dozen.

It’s not just books. The same thing happens with app stores, and Yelp. Even the honest reviews are mostly written by people who are stupid, or blinded by fury, or both. It really makes you wonder whether online reviews are only mostly worthless, or actually completely worthless.

What particularly pisses me off most about sock-puppet reviews is that they penalize people naïve enough to believe in such quaint notions as truth and honesty. I’ve had six novels published, and spent five years as a full-time author: I can understand the burning desire to publicize and highlight your work, especially when you really believe that you’ve crafted something special. And reviews matter (at least for restaurants.) But when my first book came out, and an acquaintance offered to trade a rave review of it (without reading it) if I did the same for his band, I did not reply. It sounded like cheating. It still sounds like cheating. Does not cheating make me a sucker? How messed up is that?

(How can you be sure I’m not lying about cheating? Because if I was, my books would have a lot more Amazon reviews than they currently do. Sigh. But at least I know that those I have received are bona fide…minus the half-dozen unsolicited reviews from friends, all of which have made me uneasy.)

And yet. When the Internet taketh away, the Internet also giveth. Some years ago, on impulse, I wrote a novel about a squirrel. No, really. My agents sent it to publishers everywhere…who decreed it unpublishable, because it was, well, about a squirrel, and yet not for kids. I gave up, released it online, and pretty much forgot about it — only to discover, eighteen months later, that while I wasn’t paying attention it had become an unlikely online cult hit. Since then it’s been published for real, a screenwriter has attached himself to it and is pitching it to the various animation studios, and it’s become my highest-rated, best-reviewed, and most-loved book.

So I can’t help thinking that in the long run, all this furor over sock-puppet reviews is meaningless noise masking a larger truth: that literary success, unlike that of restaurants, is more or less random (I mean, really, 50 Shades of Grey?) and no amount of bad behavior or paid reviews will much change whether or not the arbitrary stars of fortune smile upon you. That might explain why Ellory and Leather, bestsellers both, would stoop so low. They more than anyone else are viscerally aware of, and simultaneously desperately want to deny, how random their success has been.

All of which reminds me of something Stephen King once wrote, after it was discovered that he had been writing and publishing books as Richard Bachman, even though each would have been an instant bestseller had he published them under his own name:

You try to make sense of your life. Everyone does it, but perhaps people who have extraordinarily lucky or unlucky lives do it a little more. Part of you wants to think that you must have been one hardworking S.O.B. or a real prince or maybe even one of the Sainted Multitude if you end up riding high in a world where people are starving. But there’s another part that suggests it’s all a lottery, a real-life game-show not much different from “Wheel of Fortune.” It is for some reason depressing to think it was all–or even mostly–an accident.

King dealt with this by trying again with his new persona; Ellory and Leather by puffing up their own works and attacking others. There are two differences. One is that the Internet gives everyone, not just public figures, an infinite number of chances to reinvent themselves. The other is that King is an honest man, whereas Ellory and Leather–and everyone else who ever wrote a fake review–are dishonest scumbags. Alas, my bet is that they will continue to prosper.

Image credit: Kevin Yezbick, Flickr.