Thursday, January 14, 2010

Online Activism, or, It's Feel Sorry for Scott Adams Time

Scott Adams today at the blog writes that one of the reasons for making online reviews of books, restaurants, et cetera, illegal is that controversial books tend to attract one-star reviews by those who disagree philosophically with the books’ content. I quote:

My argument for making online reviews illegal is that illegitimate reviews have a huge potential economic impact. For example, when I published my book that was a collection of blog posts (Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain), I got hammered with one-star reviews from people who loved the writing from which it came. Their gripe was that, in their opinion, blog material should remain free and online. I had somehow violated a rule I didn’t realize was a rule, and so I was punished with negative reviews. The one-star reviews dragged down the average star rating on Amazon and presumably influenced other buyers.

Any controversial writer – and I sometimes fall into that category (Google "God’s Debris"), gets one-star reviews from people who want to suppress certain points of view. Online reviews are the digital equivalent of book burning. True Believers from the left and the right pile in to drive reviews low enough to sink book sales. It is activism masquerading as reviews.
His arguments – and I should note this is a thought experiment on Adams’ part, as he emphasizes he doesn’t really believe online reviews should go away – are weak at best.

Let’s talk first about the statement “Online reviews are the digital equivalent of book burning.” Uh-uh. While both negative online reviews and book burnings may have political or philosophical motivations, neither act truly succeeds in the goal -- stated or unstated – of suppressing the book in question. It’s my belief that such acts are isolated in time and, thus, at the time they occur – or are read, in the case of online reviews – they may have an impact, but that impact lessens as time proceeds. Books that were burned were still available to those who wanted to read them – just not the copies in particular that were burned. And if we as consumers truly let poor online reviews in a mixed batch of reviews for the same product, no one would purchase anything.

For instance, shortly after Christmas I purchased a USB-to-parallel cable in order to hook at parallel laser printer up to a computer without a parallel port. The cable – the least expensive offered at the online store where I was shopping – received a smattering of reviews, some good, but most of them ranked the product as poor. If I merely looked at the average rating the product received, I might not have purchased it. But because online reviews, in the aggregate, offer a wide spectrum of experience with the product, I read them all and concluded, through inference and direct evidence offered in the reviews, that the product, more likely than not, would work for me. I bought it. I installed it. It did not work. It is probably at this point that many of the one-star reviews were written because, as I read them again, they were expressing the same frustration I was experiencing. However, in re-reading the positive reviews, I discovered further clues that, on a subsequent attempt to install the product, led to it functioning flawlessly. Thus, a potential one-star review from me turned into a five-star review.

My point is this: Often, as I read the one-star reviews of any product – be it a computer cable or a book – I find clues that will help me have a five-star experience with the product.

And, yes, I have written one- and two-star reviews. Such is a natural part of being a consumer: If we encounter something we do not like, we share that feeling with others. If not, sites like The Consumerist would not exist. Recently, at, I wrote a short two-star review for “Ackroyd,” a book by Jules Feiffer. I really, really wanted to like it because I really, really enjoyed the film “Popeye,” for which Feiffer wrote the screenplay. The book, however, was a disappointment, and I let the good folks at goodreads know why. Will it influence others at goodreads? I kinda think that’s what the site is for. But there will be fans of the book who will disregard my poor review, and in the aggregate – since I explained clearly why the book did not appeal to me – those who have not read it will either find my review useful or parochial. That is their choice. One is not obligated to remain silent if one does not like something one has consumed.

Further, Adams goes on to say “True Believers from the left and the right pile in to drive reviews low enough to sink book sales. It is activism masquerading as reviews.” I have to say: so what? This goes beyond what Adams calls a “knee-jerk” and “naïve” appeal to the First Amendment. Adams is effectively telling those who don’t like what he writes that they ought not to write negative reviews because if they do they will hurt his economic viability. What Adams fails to realize that while he may consider this “activism” as a knee-jerk reaction from readers who want to suppress his work, it is only a natural reaction to what his readers perceive as activism masquerading as writing a book. If he is as “controversial” as an author as he believes his reviews say he is, then he ought to understand that those who read his work have the right – outside of the First Amendment – to respond to his activism with activism of their own.

Adams also writes that reviews of one of his books – which was a collection of blog postings – were generally poor because readers objected to having to pay for his postings in book form, when they were available for free online.

Well, Dave Barry can tell him all about that. How many times have I read in book jacket blurbs that his latest offering is not a collection of newspaper columns, but fresh material? Often enough to infer that Barry, too, has felt that sting. Here, Adams is simply butting heads with the naïve Internet reality that once something is free, it will remain free forever. He ought to write a book masquerading as activism on that subject.

Adams, in a way, is experiencing the “organizing without organizations” effect that Clay Shirky writes about in “Here Comes Everybody.” The Internet – through Adams’ blog, his book sales on, and in other outlets – is providing both his fans and his detractors ample opportunity to react to what he produces. That some of it is negative, and that some of it “presumably” effects his economic bottom line, is inevitable and unavoidable. It is also, as he concedes, unstoppable.

Note: The comic accompanying this post also appeared on today. Chillingly ironic, no?

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