Wednesday, April 14, 2004

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James Marcus, a former senior editor for, has an amusing essay in the Washington Post on the varying quality of Amazon's customer reviews:

Imagine that you're circulating from room to room at an enormous cocktail party, with millions of guests, eavesdropping. Undoubtedly you will be treated to some gems, some brilliant bits of repartee, the occasional burst of intellectual fireworks. Most of what you hear, however, will be pretty mundane, given the law of averages and the general human tendency to lose track of our thoughts halfway to completing them. Well, the same rule applies to customer reviews, both at Amazon and elsewhere. There's plenty of wheat amid the chaff -- but there's lots of chaff, acres and acres of it, much of it lacking coherence, clarity, charity and punctuation. In a sense, it's now the audience, not the editor, shouldering the burden of culling out the good stuff. Whether this represents a seismic shift in the cultural terrain or merely a fresh division of labor remains to be seen.

If only there were some way to combine the speed and democracy of the Web with the more meditative character of traditional criticism. Oh wait, there already is: blogging. In some cases the convergence is quite literal -- witness the case of Terry Teachout, reviewing for such Bronze Age bastions as the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and Commentary with his left hand while blogging like mad with his right at his site, But even those bloggers who never venture into print have something in common with their opposite numbers in the traditional media: a name to besmirch, a reputation to smudge. It keeps them honest in a way that anonymous, duck-and-cover reviewing never can. It also encourages a kind of snarky civility, very welcome in our polarized era.

This may change, of course, as the blogosphere moves further into the mainstream. Already there are turf wars, low-level spats. No doubt a pecking order will gradually materialize, since even cyberspace operates according to the familiar logic of Animal Farm: All bloggers are created equal, but some are more equal than others. There will be stars, contract players, boffo traffic numbers. There will be a proliferation of advertising on the most visible sites -- there is already, in fact -- and a defiant tug-of-war between the early bloggers and their entrepreneurial successors.

Here's a provocative thought -- does Marcus' assessment of Amazon's customer reviews also apply to the comments posted on blogs? Because bloggers lack the administrative resources/capabilities of, will this lead to the end of comment features over time?

I'll be further amused to see the customer comments on Marcus' forthcoming book, Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut

posted by Dan on 04.14.04 at 06:45 PM


Amazon reviewers are motivated by reputation through ratings. Its even more explicit than links, but less than traffic. He is right that cut and run reviews are not measured by reputation and there is less identity of reviewers, but readers can fitler them out.

The difference is blogs have both implicit reputation and propogation.

Rate or link to this comment as you may, its just one message, but a second-class citizen in blogspace relative to an actual post.

posted by: Ross Mayfield on 04.14.04 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

Dan, the very premise of your question is flawed.

Amazon culling the reviews ? Not as far as I can see.

Here are links to famously hilarious reviews of the Bill Keanes' Family Circus books at (be sure to scroll down):

Review of Smile!

Review of WhatDoesItSay!

Review of TheFamilyCircusParade

As for suggesting the end of the comments section, the DeLong post that brought it up got a rather negative reception. Spam-protection ? Sure. The end of the comments section ? Hardly.

posted by: ch2 on 04.14.04 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

As one who has had my books praised and creamed on Amazon a fair number of times, my first reaction was -- "What is this shit!" But after a couple of years of this... and being also, obviously, a consumer of books... I have to admit I find Amazon reviews tremendously useful--wheat and, sometimes, chaff. To be candid, professional book reviews (which I have also done on a fair number of occasions) also have a strong component of bad faith, the most important aspect of which is to make the reviewer look good, often at the expense of the reviewed. Amazon reviews (except those written by the author or his/her friends) are refreshingly honest. I read them and (sometimes) let them guide my purchases. When I have, I have not often been let down.

posted by: Roger L. Simon on 04.14.04 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

I rarely write nonfiction reviews. However, I still rank among the top 242 reviewers:

I now spend more of my effort posting comments on blogs. What will I do in the future? I’ll take it one day at a time. Why is Brad DeLong getting so ornery? That’s because he’s making a fool of himself. DeLong prefers a liberal echo chamber. It’s safer that way. How would you like to be someone who still pretends to take Paul Krugman seriously? Wouldn’t you feel uneasy?

posted by: David Thomson on 04.14.04 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

Actually, the problem is being solved right now - not because people are making dumb comments due to a lack of reputation, but because of comment spam. MovableType is creating a way for people to carry a personality with them when they make comments across blogs called TypeKey ( It's only a matter of time before someone hooks that up with an Amazon- or eBay-style reputation mechanism. Then we'll all be able to filter out the dumb commenters (a la Slashdot) and look only at the good ones.

Of course, another equally likely course of action is that people will never register with TypeKey to comment and either the system will die out or comments sections will disappear entirely.

posted by: Bob McGrew on 04.14.04 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

This is a well known problem. Thanks to the Canadian yahoo glitch, we know a lot more then we used to about authors who hype their own books. For example, Tim Lambert has spent a lot of time refuting John Lott at his blog

I normally take off one star from what I read at amazon. The only exception is if it's got 41/5stars after 50 posts. Then I think I've found something special. That's how I've found Flogging Molly.

One last comment, always read the negative reviews before the positive. If you find something there that you can't stand, then don't order it.

That's the best review I can to for amazon, help me out guys/gals.

posted by: theEnvoy on 04.14.04 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

Is this Dan's wayu of telling us we're out of control, I wonder?


posted by: Bithead on 04.14.04 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

Forced to guess, I'd say yes.

Comment sections in other blogs have often degenerated into chatfests or flame fora that reflect no credit on their site's owner. The proto-comment section, Slate's Fray (which incidentally has a full-time editor) got so bad the magazine instituted a "Club Fray" to which only invited readers could post.

A blogger can either let decay happen or invest time and effort in policing his comment section, two unattractive options. Drezner's blog has maintained a higher level of tone and content than most, but even here some posters have abused the privilege with abusive language, posts that eschew links in favor of long quotes from articles appearing elsewhere or posts repeating essentially the same points over and over. What Dan (and a number of other bloggers with comment sections) would probably like is some self-censorship from posters, especially frequent posters, that would do the work he would otherwise have to do himself.

This guess may be completely wrong. It reflects more than anything what my own thinking would be if I were in Dan's position.

posted by: Zathras on 04.14.04 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

One of the great undiscovered wellsprings of humor in the modern world is Henry Raddick's reviews on Amazon. I urge you to check him out.

posted by: Tom T. on 04.14.04 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

Go here to see the answer to one of the most important blogosphere/forum questions... how many forum members does it take to change a light bulb. Milk almost came out of my nose when I read it

posted by: Kat on 04.14.04 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

Drezner's blog has maintained a higher level of tone and content than most, but even here some posters have abused the privilege with abusive language, posts that eschew links in favor of long quotes from articles appearing elsewhere

Well, just a comment to tha last part; Many blog comment sections do not allow links; others, while allowing it, frown on the practice of posting links, apparently thinking added links off their site lead people /away/.... links to other sites tend to get treated like Spam.

I've done both; linked to offsite stuff, and done quotes. I'm not sure which is better, or less offensive, (or from the other end of the scale, more useful) from my own POV, much less that of each particular blog operator.

You're right; Dan seems to have done a pretty fair job of keeping things on an even keel here, perhaps because of the quality of participants he attracts, for hte most part. (Yes, consider that a compliment.)

posted by: Bithead on 04.14.04 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

Web comments sections tend to be self-selected. This one seems to be a place where folks with a lot of different backgrounds talk civilly,and one can have an intelligent debate with another poster. I think the type of posts our host tend to do lends itself to this, because our host does not tend to throw out partisan red meat, and both Democrats and Republicans seem to feel comfortable discussing things here without screaming about "invasions of trolls". Frankly, this is rather unusual.

(For example, the discussions of gay marriage over here were remarkably free of rancor,even though there were a lot of very strong opinions. Can you imagine that over at Little Green Footballs or Kevin Drum's site?)

As for the occasional intemperate language -- that happens. But even the folks I would consider most guilty of that often bring interesting arguments to the table, or, in one specific case, bring historic facts that most of us have never considered. And when somebody really gets out of hand, it seems like we commenters do a pretty good job of shaming the fellow back to sanity.

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 04.14.04 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

Personally, I think blog comments are pathetic in the utmost. The only thing worse are these horrid webboard message forums.
No, not because of the comments themselves, but from the atrocious design and usability of a comments section. I mean, how likely is it that anyone will read this? Respond to it? And if they do, how will I know? It's terrible. And if you get a LOT of comments, what then? There's this ad hoc syntax of
handle: response
other_handle: other response

but that's wretched. You have to use the browser's search feature and look for your name, then try and concatenate your replies in a message which will, frankly, rarely be read by the person to whom you're responding. If I care what I wrote, I've got to come back to the site and artificially pump up the pageviews by reloading to see if someone's noticed my opinion only to suffer through the interface and the 'I wish it was IRC' directed replies convention? Why bother?

If there's a "community" amongst people who comment on blog posts, if there's discussion between commenters, it's *despite* the terrible comments sections, not because of them. Personally, I think its a testament to blog loyalty to be a regular commenter *anywhere* that uses these tragic little 11-line boxes for commenting and a single-depth mile-long page for displaying them. Oh, and let's not forget the occasional grey dotted line, which serves to arbitrarily group some comments together despite the fact that they have nothing to do with each other. Perhaps it's just my brain trying to find a pattern to the formatting mess.

IMHO, if you want comments to be useful, look at slashdot. Nested replies, user ratings, search, emails when you get a reply, multiple views, etc. There's little point in commenting on, say, Instapundit. Or here, for that matter.

Will anyone disagree with me? Who knows! I'll have to come back here and check later I guess. Maybe somebody will cross-post it to my email, which could serve to drive the comment out of the "comments" altogether and into a medium where at least I can see some quoted text.

I wouldn't say "Anything's better than this" because that's not true, but "good enough to suffer through" should hardly be sufficient for the blogosphere.

posted by: tony on 04.14.04 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

And the worst thing of all... I commented here without refreshing Drezner's Mozilla tab. It was yesterday's topic before I even started... which virtually guarantees that I wasted my time altogether.

Ohwell. Dan, your email policy says you read every post. What about the ones from yesterday? Will you see this?

What a sad medium for discussion in the age of interconnected-ness.

posted by: Tony on 04.14.04 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

It was yesterday's topic before I even started... which virtually guarantees that I wasted my time altogether.

At the Drezner Deli, comment threads have generally a longer shelf-life than 24 hours.

posted by: ch2 on 04.14.04 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

I cannot imagine bothering with the Amazon reviews on something wildly popular. Most of the reviews are going to be of absurdly low, partisan quality. (Actually, I remember a time at my dot-com job a few years ago when we would look for especially hilarious reviews of things like Jewel's book of poetry.)

On the other hand, I have gone to some effort to review things that I knew a fair amount about, not so much even the books/movies themselves as the quality of the video editions or translations or whatever. In many of these cases mine is still the only review there, and since it contains not merely my opinion but actual information that goes beyond opinion, I expect it's quite useful to the very small number of people who will go there.

To bring this to blogs, I very rarely look at the comments on a site like LGF any more, because in no time there will be 300 of them and most of them will be echo chamber-style. I'm not bashing LGF but the odds are just against anyone even responding, because in no time you'll be buried deep in the middle of a lot of posts saying very similar things. (An exception, not too long ago, was a thread on whether the Allies should have bombed the death camps; everyone's positions were not obvious at the outset and there was a lot of good discussion on both sides.) Better to actually talk with 10 people than to try to out-shout 100.

posted by: Mike G on 04.14.04 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

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