Reviewer wars and how to fix them

Matt Yglesias has a new book out, The Rent is Too Damn High. I worked on housing policy back in Australia and so have bought the book but haven’t had a chance to read it.

What is interesting me are the Amazon reviews of the book. I took a screenshot. You can see that it is completely polarised. Interestingly, when I took this Amazon’s average reported a 3 star but clearly another negative vote or two and it will drop to a 2 star rating. On Yelp, that stuff really matters. The story here is more complicated.

What happened was that last week Yglesias upset Andrew Breitbart fans with this tweet. There was some interaction but the anger persisted. The end result was a war on Amazon’s review site. Interestingly, Yglesias fans struck back and have also used Amazon’s ‘did you find this review helpful’ function to push the positive reviews up on the attention frame.

What this demonstrates is that the Internet now provides opportunities for retribution. Amazon is one place. Wikipedia can be another (although in this case there was only a brief skirmish). In this case, Yglesias will be harmed but interestingly, Amazon will be harmed too if fewer people buy the book because they look at the average rating rather than the distribution.

The Yglesias experience also points to a possible change in review policy that may help. If you look on iBooks, Yglesias only has positive reviews. This is because in order to post a review there you have had to purchase the book. Amazon have ‘Amazon verified purchases’ that can accompany reviews. But perhaps they should report two averages: one  from everybody and one from just verified purchasers.

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