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Amazon.com and their Top 1000 Reviewers

Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN

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There Are No Free Lunches When it Comes to Reviewing

Filip Kesler, a Silicon Valley Entrepreneur, and Trevor Pinch of Cornell University’s Department of Science and Technology Studies, completed a systematic study of Amazon.com and their top 1000 reviewers. Their research focuses on a baffling notion that Amazon, essentially, has people working for them for free.  How is it that Amazon, in its immensity, could be receiving a “free lunch” from all of the individuals that write reviews for the website? We’ve all been told countless times, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch!” So, what’s the catch? Pinch and Kesler found that reviewers are indeed receiving something in return, although it might not be what you expect.

Amazon.com: Humble Beginnings

What started in a garage in 1994, as a email store for retailing books, has grown into one of the largest online retailers in the world of online commerce.  Amazon now offers consumers much more than books, evolving from exclusively being an online literary-style book seller to the largest electronic retailer on the internet. Their goals these days is to sell everything and encourage product reviews of, literally, everything. Initially, Amazon hired editors to write features and reviews but discovered that people would review for free. After trying to fix glitches in the review system, such as total reviewer anonymity, flaws still exist in a model that many businesses view as the Gold Standard. Customer reviews are being plagiarized, fake reviews are popping up everywhere. According to the study, anyone who is a registered customer can write a review without any obligation from Amazon to have bought the item that’s under review.

Do Good, Feel Good

A copious amount of time is being spent behind a keyboard writing reviews, Pinch and Kesler report. The average time spent reviewing is 9 years. One Amazon reviewer reported having reviewed consistently for 13 years. With this, specific methodologies have been formulated in regards to review writing. Reviews must be honest and fair, the respondents report. A reviewers job “is to help people make a decision, not make it for them” through justifying an opinion with facts instead of quickly stating a personal one.

In sum, 166 of the top reviewers responded to the study, each taking great pride in their reviews. Surprisingly, their responses lent a different return upon investment than expected in the “free lunch” conversation. “Self expression” and “enjoyment” were ranked highly when respondents were asked why they chose to write reviews. “Altruism” and developing a “sense of community” followed close behind. Along with the sense of community comes an overwhelming care about their rank and reputation as a reviewer. Admittedly, in the “real world” reviewer recognition “is not a big deal, but it is an important deal in a community.” Features such as Amazon Friends have brought reviewers closer and have begun to influence their reasons and techniques for reviewing.
A sense of self accomplishment is given to some reviewers. “I like the fact that I rank high, I don’t rank much higher anywhere else in life.” said one respondent. Another admitted, “I have often said that Amazon ‘saved me’ because it gave me back my passion for writing. In all honesty my Amazon rank has become the foundation of my self worth. I work at a library, but I consider myself a reviewer first and foremost- and that badge tells me that I am accomplishing something.”

Someone’s Getting Free Merchandise?

In addition to self-fulfillment, respondents also reported being offered free merchandise in exchange for reviews. According to the study, 85% of respondents report being sent free

books or other products to review by publishers, authors and the like. A large number of reviews by higher-ranked reviewers are indeed for books they have been given free. “The fact is that most readers of these reviews do not know that there is any relationship at all, never mind a direct one, between the producer of the product and the reviewer” the study states.

Overwhelmingly, Amazon.com reviewers “really care about books (and music and movies) and reviewing them. It’s a form of work that can on occasions become frustrating and even addictive. It’s a form of work that can bring rewards beyond the activity itself in terms of utilitarian benefits that can accumulate to some top reviewers.”

Our Take on the Conversation

The truth of the matter is this: putting so much emphasis on being a reviewer is scary. Instead of being a tool for businesses, the review is morphed into a payback for a free lunch, and sometimes the need for a massive chocolate cake for dessert. Too much emphasis on identity and self-fulfillment breaks the fundamental reason for reviewing: having both informed consumers and informed businesses.

The practice of sending reviewers free merchandise to review, although not against Amazon’s online review guidelines, is questionable. According to the study reviewers, after having read a book or tried a product, usually don’t post negative reviews, or they give authors the option of what they want done. Overwhelmingly, authors are choosing to refuse to have the negative review out in public. The study found that more than 80 percent of the reviews on the site were positive all because 85 percent of these reviewers receive free product to review. Many
reviewers thus are only posting positive reviews, even when negative ones should be transparent. It’s indisputably true that online reviewers are indeed being influenced by outside factors. Without diving to the bottom of the ethics pool and opening a whole new can of worms, in essence, this can’t be a good thing.

Whether the reward is tangible or intangible, the age old adage holds true. There really is no such thing as a free lunch. Amazon.com and its reviewers are living proof.

To view Trevor Pinch’s delivery of this study at Cornell’s ILR Conference Center in Midtown Manhattan click here.

http://www.trureview.com/blog/2013/10/theres-no-such-thing-as-a-free-lunch/

 

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