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Call Me a Snob, but Amazon’s Idiotic Reviews are Useless via Rhymer Rigby

None of this is going to stop me from using Amazon, but it does make me wonder if, rather than suing the shills, Amazon’s time and money might be better spent funding professional critics. As it is, all the current system does is provide an answer to the question, “Is it better to ask the opinion of one person who reads 100 books a year or 100 people who read one book a year?”

Last weekend, Amazon announced it was taking legal action against 1,114 people who it claims have posted fake product reviews on its site. This comes on top of lawsuits against wholesale fake review providers. The point, the e-commerce giant says, is that such reviews, “significantly undermine the trust that consumers and the vast majority of sellers and manufacturers place in Amazon.”

Oh really? As a consumer I trust Amazon to be extremely convenient and keenly priced. But its reviews are not worth the pixels they’re displayed on and haven’t been for years. Relying on Amazon reviews is like walking into your local Chicken Cottage and asking half a dozen punters “What’s the best restaurant round here?”

The classic Amazon review is a 4* review. This could mean literally anything. The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber gets four stars (an average of 139 reviews) and enjoyed widespread critical acclaim. Meanwhile, Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as Told by Christian also gets four stars (an average of 5,500 reviews). Most professional reviewers said it sucked. This, lest we forget is a book featuring the immortal line: “My cock concurs.”

Surely 4100 reviewers can’t be wrong? Well, actually they can be. And what’s more, they can be significantly more wrong than 140 reviewers.

Back in the 00s, there was a fashionable notion called “The Wisdom of Crowds” – the idea being that, if you solicited enough people’s answers to a given question, you’d get an accurate answer. But with book or film reviews, this is demonstrably not true. Rather than wisdom, you get the tyranny of the majority – a mob that knows what it likes and likes what it knows. Any informed opinion is drowned out. Which is why on Rotten Tomatoes (which aggregates critical opinion), Transformers: Age of the Fallen gets a 19pc rating while on Amazon it gets a nice fat four stars.

OK, you might say, but you’re being a snob. Maybe my not liking EL James or Transformers films doesn’t mean they’re bad. It just means they don’t appeal to my hoity-toity elitist tastes. As The Dude says in The Big Lebowski, “That’s just your opinion man.”

But there’s a problem with this argument. Once you start conflating popular with good, you inevitably embark upon a road to all sorts of fun conclusions like McDonald’s being finest restaurant in the world, Dan Brown being one of our great authors and Benidorm being the very best holiday destination there is.

In fact, I have a feeling that Amazon reviews have actually got worse over the years. The reason? Back in the Amazon’s salad days, its reviewers were likely to be early adopters who were better-read than average. Now, they’re more like a cross-section of society and the crowd isn’t so wise anymore. I know, know: you’re not supposed to say these things. But then you look at the thousands of five star ratings that Jeffrey Archer gets – and what else is there to say?

Dan Brown's Inferno features Robert Langdon in drag

Dan Brown’s Inferno features Robert Langdon in drag

But even if you are a Dan Brown fan, you may still get a raw deal from the ratings system. The recommendations system based on your own and others’ browsing is unlikely to serve you up the mid 80s Hungarian literary classic Sátántangó (“Not a plot driven piece. It moves at the pace of a stone hedgehog.”) on the basis of having bought The Da Vinci Code (3.5*), but it might give you something like Norwegian by Night (4*) or The Laughing Monsters (3.5*). Both of these are classed as thrillers, but they are of the thoughtful, demanding kind. Which is why you end up with Amazon reviews such as “The more I read the more confused I got” (Laughing Monstors) and “So much E – L -O – N – G – A – T – E – D detail, EXTREMELY BORING” (Norwegian by Night)

Still, I dare say both are fair reviews if you’ve picked your 3.5-4* thrillerexpecting zingers like, “My French stinks, Langdon thought, but my zodiac iconography is pretty good.”

“Once you start conflating popular with good, you inevitably embark upon a road to all sorts of fun conclusions like McDonald’s being finest restaurant in the world”
Rhymer Rigby

There’s more to it though. The system itself seems designed to bunch reviews around the four star mark. You can’t award a product zero stars. The minimum is one. But the fact is most people give good ratings. A helpful 2014 analysis of new electronics products showed that over half the people rating the products gave five stars. The next biggest was four. The average is 3.9.

It’s not just Amazon either: FiveThirtyEight says that film review sitesthat rely on the public suffer from the same highly positive bunching.

Back on Amazon, and this means that most products get a rating between 3.5 and 5, so you effectively have four different ratings (Amazon rounds to the nearest half star). In the abstract, you may understand this, but in practice, your brain tells you that there’s very little between a 3.5 star product and a 4.5 star product. Except, when you’re using this compressed scale, the former effectively is 25pc and the latter 75pc.

Scarlett Johansson in Under The Skin

Scarlett Johanssen reacts to a series of poorly written Amazon reviews

This wouldn’t matter if the raw material for the ratings wasn’t so dodgy, but it is. Let’s take a film – Under the Skin. It gets a mere three stars out of five on Amazon – and the largest single rating is a single star – which, pretty much puts it down in “It sucks” territory. Yet quite a few professional critics rated it one of the best films of 2014.

I suspect Under The Skin suffers from having a big name (Scarlett Johanssen) and a well-known director (Jonathan Glazer). Like Norwegian by Night and The Laughing Monsters, this put it in crossover territory where, despite being a difficult, arty film, it gets a fair number of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen fans. They watch it and, perhaps, unsurprisingly, think it sucks. So the superb Under The Skin gets three stars while Transformers, which really does suck, gets four.

None of this is going to stop me from using Amazon, but it does make me wonder if, rather than suing the shills, Amazon’s time and money might be better spent funding professional critics. As it is, all the current system does is provide an answer to the question, “Is it better to ask the opinion of one person who reads 100 books a year or 100 people who read one book a year?”

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/11945985/Call-me-a-snob-but-Amazons-idiotic-reviews-are-useless.html

2014 in Review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,200 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 20 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Dear Mother…

A little poem I wrote for my mother on Mother’s Day…

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For nine months you carried me,
And all I did was make you pee.
On your bladder I sat and sat
Wishing I could make it flat.

Heartburn came along with me,
I didn’t listen to your plea.
I even made you nauseous too,
So much so that you turned blue.

To give me room, your belly grew
I know you felt like a big moo.
I gave you cankles but great skin,
You always had to fake a grin.

When you sat down you often prayed
That you wouldn’t need an aide
To help you off the floor again,
You hoped I wouldn’t cause a sprain.

And all the changes that I caused,
They never even made you pause.
One minute made you cry or bite,
Another, you wanted to kill on sight.

I made you eat some crazy things
Like ice cream with buffalo wings.
Apples, pickles, and green peas
All drowned in mustard with some cheese.

I even made your nights grow longer
And your days became much shorter.
I have however made love stronger,
You willingly became my anchor.

My teenage years were no fun
But you refused to say we’re done.
I was too silly to accept
Mothers are here to be kept.

Once again you’re by my side
Your eyes uncertain, gazing wide.
Your life is still all about me
Most likely ’til eternity.

My words unworthy and so few,
Cannot compare to what is true.
I am in awe of all your love,
That rivals all the stars above.

© Copyright 2014 Olivia G. Owens. All rights reserved.