Popular blogs, Amazon reviews, and cults of personality

Watching big-time bloggers put out books really is something else.

Case in point: yesterday, Mark Sisson, a huge paleo blogger, released a book called the 21-Day Total Body Transformation. Naturally, he was trying to hit the New York Times bestseller list, and offering bonuses for buying multiple books, etc, as many people have before. The strategy works, I don’t blame him and I wish we had done it for Trust Agents (we ended up doing “free” speaking deals instead).

So naturally, as an author, I end up looking at the reviews of this book; as an author, reading Amazon reviews is what I do when I should be working. I read other people’s reviews to give me either an inferiority or superiority complex, depending on the situation. I’m sure many of you do the same.

Anyway on Mark’s book, there they are, sitting there, all 5-star reviews, except this lone 1-star review sitting there at the bottom, voted “least useful” of all the reviews (at this point, it’s sitting at 138 “downvotes,” or 93% “unhelpful”). Then there’s the giant comment thread that accompanies it in which the reviewer is put down, insulted, etc.

Now before I continue, I’d like to mention that I read Mark’s last book, liked it, and passed it on. I’m sure this one is fine too, and I hope he hits the list (it’s sitting at #6 overall right now).

But that aside, some of the internet’s superfans are starting to drive me nuts.

I first began to notice this trend a long time ago on Gary Vee’s book Crush It, which I also read when it came out. There’s this crazy comment thread attached to a two-star review over there, which due to its inflammatory nature has been voted up to “most helpful” of all reviews. Gary (who I consider an friend/acquaintance) answers really helpfully in the thread, and then, unbeknownst to him I’m sure, all the devils in Hell are unleashed in his defense.

Here’s how it happens. First, a guy with a huge blog audience puts out a product, book, or what have you. This author probably polarizes quite effectively, leading to a number of zealots who judge him not by the quality of his content (though they could– Gary, Mark, etc. write quite well), but by who they are, leading to anyone who disagrees becoming a kind of enemy of the state, a traitor, or what have you.

The weird thing is that, often enough, the authors themselves have nothing to do with this. They don’t intentionally create cults– they’ve just helped a lot of people, and those people personally identify with the lifestyle or personality who leads them.

Don’t get me wrong. I want to be popular, and I want to hit lists as much as the next guy. But the weird part is, every author I know, even those who would recognize the insanity of this phenomenon, probably also think it’s be the best thing that could ever happen to them.

I don’t have a conclusion to this because there is none. It’s something everyone thinks is nuts, yes, but only as it regards someone else’s audience, and never theirs, because polarizing is good and helps drum up attention. However,

  • It’s not good for the public.
  • It ruins the trust people have in Amazon’s rating system.
  • It artificially inflates the apparent popularity of books.

In short, it is a perfect example of the tragedy of the commons.

Have a solution? I’m open to hearing it. I honestly don’t think there is one.





17 responses to “Popular blogs, Amazon reviews, and cults of personality”

  1. Chris Avatar

    I think the solution, in the case of Amazon, is that nobody can comment, except people that have actually purchased the product. Outsiders can view and up vote or down vote, but can’t comment until purchasing the product. Do you think something like that would work?

  2. NomadicNeill Avatar

    Herd behaviour… what can you do about it?

    Become the anti-guru, the anti-leader? Someone like Robert Anton Wilson pulled it off… but his audience was educated about these kinds of things.

  3. Scott Avatar

    Terrific post, Julien! Chris is right – and, I would even take it up a notch from there.

    For a decade, I had a gig as a movie reviewer on a television show. It never occurred to me it would be considered anything other than highly unethical to express an opinion about a movie I hadn’t seen.

    Yet, that’s exactly what Amazon (and others) allow people to do when reviewing on their sites.

    In many cases, the haters are reviewing their perception of the author, and not the work itself. Or, they believe that, in some perverted manner, they are more likely get the attention of the author with an outrageous, asinine comment, rather than an insightful evaluation. (Unfortunately, they’re usually right on that count.)

    For the life of me, I cannot figure out what value that is for a prospective purchaser — or Amazon. Yet, they allow it to continue.

    I’d vote that you’re blocked from commenting on — or even giving an up or down vote on a comment — until you’ve at least purchased the book upon which you desire to pontificate.

  4. John Falchetto Avatar

    I think it boils down to human nature. We want to believe in heros and villains.
    It makes our lives easier. We can destroy the villains and glorify the heros.
    Chris Brogan has this type of stuff happening on his blog when he announced his G+ webinar. A whole bunch of people attacked him and others attacked those who were saying this was crap.

    It only happens with those who are perceived as heros though and elicit a strong emotional reaction (hate or love) from their readers.

  5. Hugh Anderson Avatar
    Hugh Anderson

    I think part of it has to do with the fact that Mark and Gary are populizers for their niches. They attract beginners, and there are no truer believers than the recently converted.

    Those of us who’ve been around the block a couple times don’t feel as threatened by criticism, and therefore tend not to react in such a manner.

  6. Amber Naslund Avatar

    I don’t know either. And I experienced the weirdness of it.

    Honestly, I’m a little bothered that most of the reviews I read of our book are glowing praise. Really? I’m proud of it, but it’s not perfect. Then, on the other end of the spectrum? The all-out-lambast. As though if, in order to write a critical review, you’ve got to be a full on asshole about it, snarky, sarcastic, etc. Then if you dare to comment or offer a counterpoint, you’re being defensive. My kingdom for a well-thought, balanced review and an open dialogue so I can learn from it.

    I’ve seen the lynch mob take on more than authors, on both sides of the equation. The jackasses and the bullies say that no one can take criticism if they don’t lay down and listen to their diatribes and personal jabs. The fans and enthusiasts are sycophants or like rabid dogs if you throw a barb at their beloved hero.

    I don’t know the answer either, but I’m really glad you put this out there. I think some of it is just our inability to work in the grey areas of the world. I’m not sure. But I’ll keep thinking.

    1. Amie Gillingham Avatar

      I think some of what you’re saying comes down to looking at who posts reviews. How many people are so dedicated to reviewing that they post 4 or 3 stars of, “Eh, it was ok”? People are more compelled to comment when they have strong feelings in either direction. Ergo, clashes when the opposite poles get together and flamewar on multiple venues. The middle of the road is generally missing from the equation.

  7. Sean Avatar

    Even when I don’t agree with a negative review, it’s alway irked me how so many people will call it ‘unhelpful’ even if it’s coherent and earnest, Sort of makes me think of a mob and pitchforks. That worries me about the paleo/primal community when we generally claim to be epistemic and empirical and then indulge in that kind of true believer behavior abhorred in the idealogical “enemy” the vegans.

  8. Michelle Russell Avatar

    Love the “tragedy of the commons”-themed photo you chose for this post, Julien! :o)

    I also like what John said above about our basic human need for “heroes and villians”…or maybe a different way of saying it is our seemingly inherent need to take sides. We all need the feeling of belonging, to some extent, in order to experience a sense of identity and security. That’s not necessarily good or bad–it’s part of the package deal of being human.

    About Amazon specifically…as long as their review policies don’t change, I don’t know if there’s anything we can do other than be savvy consumers. When I’m checking out reviews there, what I do is look at the little ranking graph and see how the overall reviews are spread out.

    Then I deliberately look at the 2, 3 and 4 ratings. There are usually very few of these, which makes it easy! But more importantly, if someone rates a book somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, it means they’ve *read* the darn thing, and then taken the time to write a review that’s balanced and well-considered.

    These mid-range reviews, IMNSHO, give much better information about the *real* strengths and weaknesses of the book, which is what I really want to know about.

  9. KA Avatar

    I’ve had this happen, in a way, when a one-star review I left on a book, along with all other one-star reviews, was marked as “abuse” so many times that it was removed. I felt really let down and also annoyed on behalf of people who might have been able to reference my review and see that the product in question wasn’t right for them.

    A week or two ago there was a kerfuffle where a well known blogger was treated rudely by a business contact and proceeded to sic her fans and followers on the company in question. To me it felt like a massive abuse of power, a self-aggrandizing overreaction that made me pity the person on the receiving end and form an immediate distrust for the person who instigated it. It shows how quickly the dark side of social media can be unleashed.

    The mob mentality is real, and it’s hurtful under the best of circumstances and dangerous under the worst.


  10. verna Avatar

    I had always thought that the reviews were written by people who had read the book, used the video, listened to the music, and now you are telling me that there are people who go out of their way to write scathing remarks for no apparent reason about people who they do not like? That seems like a long hike just to be derogatory. I don’t know if there is ever anything we can do about those people. It is hard to believe that those people have nothing else to do, but then, there is askville. Those people are online ostensibly answering questions to help others. I’ve done it, and I’ve asked questions, but one guy decided to hate me. He made snarky remarks for no apparent reason, and I left the forum because of it. There are always people who do not want to get along. In this society at this particular juncture of time,they appear to be called republicans.

  11. Lissa Avatar

    I’m surprised that 1-star review is still there. Amazon tends to take down negative reviews, because a negative review may lead to a customer not buying the product, and to sell the product, any product, is exactly what Amazon wants.

    Goodreads.com is much more reliable than Amazon for book reviews. It’s extremely common for 5-star reviewers to trawl 1-star review threads and insult the reviewer, even when it’s a perfectly valid, honest, a deep review, just because the reviewer didn’t like the book. You hardly ever see 1-star reviewers appearing in 5-star review threads to tell the reviewer how much of an idiot they are or that they’re not smart enough to ‘get’ the book.

  12. John McLachlan Avatar

    I’ve really given up reading Amazon reviews now when I see only 5 star reviews for a book. My real beef is when you see 7 reviews, all 5 star for a book the very day it’s released. It means it’s a reiew copy that was reviewed. How accurate is that?

    Essentially, I can’t trust the reviews anymore which is really too bad and really sad. It’s getting worse.

  13. Corey Koehler Avatar

    What can we do? I think you’ve done it already by simply pointing this out. As long as you and I know that there are Zealots and Haters (opposite sides of the spectrum), we can always filter them out to an extent and weigh our decision based on the whole (don’t they say that the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle?).

  14. Cactus Joe Avatar

    Hello Julien. I liked this post. It reminded me a lot of what happens in politics and sports. People get behind someone/something not because they don’t suck, but because of some kind of loyalty. I think loyalty has its place, but is often exploited. A perfect example is the Republican presidential slate. On my sleazy public facebook page, I have somehow friended many right wing nutbars and what I have noticed is, whatever candidiate is at the top, that’s who they love. When it was Michelle Bachman, she was adored. Now she is at the bottom and she is ignored. Now it’s Herman Cain, and he’s the be all end all. It’s funny (if it wasn’t so sad) to listen to these people rationalize why they like the flavor of the week. Republican voters are like sports fans. They love a losing team for no other reason than they can’t bear to support the other guys (Democrats in the political example).

    I agree with Corey. There are zealots and haters. I would argue that almost everyone falls into one category or the other once the rift has been established (that one dissenter). Then all the moderate supports become zealots for their hero and haters of the dissenter. They may be on opposite ends of the spectrum, but a person can be both, depending on the target of the adoration or derision.

    I think this is a part of human nature. We take sides. The problem seems to be when we become divided on stupid things and begin bickering so much that we lose sight of the real issues. It becomes a character debate, not an issues debate. The world needs more visionaries who can refocus attention on the real issues, not the divisive ones.

    I think you have done a good job of re-focusing people.


    p.s. the truth does not lie in the middle. it lies where it lies. people distribute themselves at various points from the middle, but usually as far as they can from the opposing viewpoint. when it comes to people, there is no absolute reality, only a relative one, because no one can know everything. a better distinction might be SKEPTICS vs DENIERS. A skeptic is someone who questions and SEEKS knowledge. A denier is someone who questions and avoids knowledge (whatever disagrees with their preconceived notion). Not to pick on Corey, but his comment is the only one I can visually see while writing this.

  15. Amie Gillingham Avatar

    It isn’t just a cult of personality that brings this into play on Amazon. A few years ago, I bought a box set of My Little Pony dvds for my daughter because she was in love with the treacley versions that were currently being promoted in stores and in some straight to dvd movies. My daughter, then a skittish thing about anything scary or violent, was terrified because the original series of MLP was more like Scooby Doo with a lot of cartoon scaries and very mild violence. I posted a one star warning to other parents that if they were looking for the modern era’s ponies, these weren’t they. You would not believe (or maybe you would!) how ripped to shreds my poor daughter was for being a big baby who loved to watch crap, my parenting style for babying my child with dumbed-down vain, shallow ponies, as well as the modern era children’s entertainment at large being ripped a new one. 3 years later, my review is still drawing nasty comments!

    As I stated above in reply to another commenter, reviewers tend to be polar. One of the hurdles in posting a review is that the commenter needs to feel strongly about being part of the conversation or share a strong feeling about the topic of conversation. Middle of the road reviews are rare birds indeed.

  16. Lana Avatar

    This just makes me think of Lady Gaga. I love her and I’ll defend her as long as I can but I know there is a point at which, even though I don’t like people disrespecting her in general for it, I can no longer defend or explain some of the things she says and does. lol I understand the passion of her fans though.
    Also the internet tends to be full of raging trolls, wanting to be angry/condescending/irritating about everything. Go figure.

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