By Garth Risk Hallberg Posted Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2008 in SLATE
I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, but I had imagined Amazon's customer reviews as a refuge from the machinations of the publishing industry: "an intelligent and articulate conversation ... conducted by a group of disinterested, disembodied spirits," as James Marcus, a former editor at the company, wrote in his memoir, Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut. Indeed, with customers unseating salaried employees like Marcus as the company's leading content producers, Amazon had been hailed as a harbinger of "Web 2.0"—an ideal realm where user-generated consensus trumps the bankrupt pieties of experts. As I explored the murky understory of Amazon's reviewer rankings, however, I came to see the real Web 2.0 as a tangle of hidden agendas—one in which the disinterested amateur may be an endangered species.
On the surface, Grady Harp seems just the sort of enlightened consumer who might lead us out of Web 1.0's darkness. A 66-year-old gallerist, retired surgeon, and poet, he has reviewed over 3,500 books, CDs, and movies for Amazon. In turn, he has attained a kind of celebrity: a No. 7 ranking; a prominent profile on the Web site; and, apparently, a following. In the week after his endorsement of my work appeared, more than 100 readers clicked on a button that said, "I found this review helpful." His stated mission is to remain "ever on the lookout for the new and promising geniuses of tomorrow." At present, Dr. Harp's vigil runs to about 500,000 words—a critical corpus to rival Dr. Johnson's—and his reviews are clearly the product of a single, effusive sensibility. Jose Saramago's Blindness is "A Searing, Mesmerizing Journey" (five stars); The Queer Men's Erotic Art Workshop's Dirty Little Drawings, "A Surprisingly Rich Treasure Trove" (five stars).
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Such efforts have led a quorum of enthusiasts to hail Harp as a standard-bearer for literary amateurism. "Keep your pen hot, Grady!" one comments. Yet an equally energetic chorus of detractors carps that Harp's Amazon reviews are more self-interested than they might appear. The comment threads accompanying Harp postings devolve into litanies of accusation: GH engages in back-scratching; GH is unduly influenced by publishers; GH has failed to read the book under review.
My own research suggests that GH is no more or less credible than Amazon's other "celebrity reviewers." Harriet Klausner, No. 1 since the inception of the ranking system in 2000, has averaged 45 book reviews per week over the last five years—a pace that seems hard to credit, even from a professed speed-reader. Reviewer No. 3, Donald Mitchell, ceaselessly promotes "the 400 Year Project," which his profile identifies only as "a pro bono, noncommercial project to help the world make improvements at 20 times the normal rate." John "Gunny" Matlock, ranked No. 6 this spring, took a holiday from Amazon, according to Vick Mickunas of the Dayton Daily News, after allegations that 27 different writers had helped generate his reviews.
Absent the institutional standards that govern (however notionally) professional journalists, Web 2.0 stakes its credibility on the transparency of users' motives and their freedom from top-down interference. Amazon, for example, describes its Top Reviewers as "clear-eyed critics [who] provide their fellow shoppers with helpful, honest, tell-it-like-it-is product information."