The strange world of Amazon reviews

The strange world of Amazon reviews

Image of fireworksLast night my Amazon reviewer ranking jumped from 9th to 6th. I’ve been in the top ten for a while now, since they changed how the rankings are calculated. But other people are obviously better at making their ranking stick, because I’d declined from 3rd to 9th, and was hovering between 9th and 10th. Of course, I posted a few reviews recently, but it seems the real reason is that a highly ranked reviewer has been summarily deleted by Amazon.

Chunky Wilberforce, who until last night was #2 reviewer, is no longer on the rankings. Many reviewers have found that they’ve shed a significant number of negative votes against them. This was accompanied by various odd effects on the Amazon site – more likely evidence that they were having a spring-clean rather than Macbeth-style signs and portents.

Amazon reviews are user-contributed views on any of the wide range of products that offers (the American and other sites have a similar system, but the reviews themselves have to be posted on the relevant site — they aren’t just shipped across). They range from the virtually useless one-liners, such as “This is a great product” or “Arrived 4 days late. Rubbish” to short essays which are as good as anything you’d find in a commercial magazine. Anyone who is registered and logged into Amazon can review, and, if you’ve made at least one purchase, you can vote on other people’s reviews, either negative or positive. You can also leave comments, but more on that anon.

This highly democratic citizen-reviewer system, though, has long been open to abuse by ‘shilling’, where a company, trader, or even the author and their family, register multiple accounts in order to vote up the reviews that favour their products, and vote down the negatives, and to leave their own 5-star reviews to bump up the averages. Shillers tend to be quite unsophisticated: their reviews are generally short, and the language and content is little altered from one review to the next. Every so often Amazon detects these, and reviews silently vanish.

The other day I found what appears to be ‘black-hat’ shilling, where a number of reviewers all with (suspiciously) no other reviews on Amazon, or at the most one or two, decided to give a particular product one star. All the reviews are short, and the content is fairly identical. Amazon has been informed, and we may see some movement.

But manipulation of the voting to promote a particular reviewer (and, of course, this has not been announced by Amazon as what has happened) is rather harder to detect and deal with. A few months ago Amazon USA introduced a new ranking system designed to combat this, and Amazon UK followed suit afterwards. If you’re interested, this was the point at which I jumped from Reviewer #96 to #3. Amazon doesn’t disclose exactly how the rankings are calculated — this would encourage the shillers — but it’s understood that any more than 10 votes on your account by the same person mean that none of the votes from that person are counted. So too bad if your mum hangs on your every word and always votes for you. Some people shed hundreds of negative votes, while others were dumped down the rankings in some cases by 10,000s of levels.

Evidently, though, Amazon still believe that manipulation is taking place, and are taking action. Or maybe it’s just a computer glitch.

The other thing is comments. It’s always nice to have someone write a few words telling you how they enjoyed the review. But not all commentators are benign. I learned a long time ago that there is absolutely no point reviewing books on controversial topics or where there is a cult following. Books by Richard Dawkins garner only 1-star and 5-star reviews, and the comments on the reviews are generally diatribes against the reviewer.

I was a bit surprised, though, to get a string of increasingly abusive comments after reviewing the Nikon 35mm f2 AF-D lens. I mentioned that this is a relatively unusual lens, as the normal lens is 50mm, and the standard ‘wide’ lens is 28mm or even 24mm. Stay with me on this one. I didn’t say that the lens was ‘rare’, ‘unobtainable’ or anything more than that. But there were howls of protest from people insisting this was the commonest lens after the 110mm, that it was an absolute standard for street photography, and that my comments about the disappointing aperture (no f1.4) were completely out of court. The truth is, very few cameras these days are sold with non-zoom lenses at all, and if you’ve ever tried to buy one of these, then you’ll know they are actually quite hard to get hold of. Quite hard. Not very hard, nor ridiculously hard, nor unobtainable hard. Just quite hard.

For some reason, qualifications like ‘quite’ and ‘relatively’ bring out the worst in these kind of commentators, who immediately — in their comments — represent the review as taking up an extremist position.

Eventually, after the latest comment, I just deleted the review. It had gathered 46 positive votes out of 56, and I think that pretty much everyone who had voted negatively had left a comment. But the abusive language was getting a bit much.

Others have fared worse — a couple of my colleagues in Amazon Vine, a specialist review programme, have been cyber-stalked after they angered a commentator, discovering that one by one all of their reviews were attacked by the person. In one case, the stalker went as far as to contact the reviewer off Amazon. Potentially nasty stuff.

Amazon does not announce judgements from its own internal review process, so we may never know what has happened to ‘Chunky’. But, for them at the very least, it appears they recognise the dangers of manipulated voting getting out of hand.

“Stupid” goes to ethics committee

“Stupid” goes to ethics committee

Councillor John DixonLib Dem Cardiff Councillor John Dixon must have been surprised to be called to book over declaring that Scientology was “stupid”. The fact that he did it on Twitter was probably enough to raise this to a national news story. But it is disturbing that a councillor can face censure for a remark like this.

What Dixon actually tweeted was: “I didn’t know the Scientologists had a church on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off.”

Harmless, one would think, albeit not especially amusing. But this kind of thing is really very mild compared to the polemic which has done Richard Dawkins very nicely in his books, and far less hurtful than the daily knockabout on the subject of religion that takes place on countless websites across the net.

Lest we forget, Scientology is not an officially recognised religion in the UK. But even if it were, most faith groups take a certain amount of ribald criticism within their stride. Dixon was not putting up satirical cartoons of the Prophet, nor was he running an ad campaign mocking the crucifixion. Sacred symbols were not being abused, sacred texts were not being criticised: no deities, real or imagined, were hurt during the making of his tweet.

If he is indeed censured for this (though, if they have any sense, the ethics committee will recognise this as a legitimate comment and let it go, before they themselves become a laughing stock) then we have gone far too far down a path of political correctness over freedom of speech. Was John Dixon inciting religious hatred? Hardly, since Scientology is not officially a recognised religion under UK law. But even if it were, would he be inciting it? I doubt that the term would constitute incitement.

During the General Election, the leader of Stratford on Avon’s ruling Conservative group labelled me and my views ‘stupid’ four times in less than thirty seconds, live on BBC Radio. I thought it was a bit rude. But why, as a recognised British citizen, should I enjoy less protection than an imported American organisation which is not even recognised for what it claims to be?

In a world where our every off-hand comment is now tabulated and Googled, we need to come to a new understanding of what is acceptable and what is not. There has to be an understanding that there is a hierarchy of off-handedness. A statement published in a book for which money is paid is of a different level from a remark in live interview broadcast on local radio, and this is again different from a brief Tweet or a FaceBook one-liner.

Dixon would not have faced this kind of censure if he had written an opinion piece in a published newspaper attacking Scientology.

He should not face it for a Tweet.

Fire: Bidford saved, Studley lost

Fire: Bidford saved, Studley lost

Bidford Young Firefighters, Martin Turner, Cllrs Peter Barnes and Daren Pemberton during the campaign.

Bidford Young Firefighters, Martin Turner, Cllrs Peter Barnes and Daren Pemberton during the campaign.

After months of delay — with no explanation — the county council finally voted on the future of the fire service across Warwickshire. An independent report commissioned by the council on their consultation highlighted many of the concerns I’ve previously expressed on this site: much of the consultation document was incomprehensible, the choice of a tabulated questionnaire prevented people from expressing their views, and the way the consultation was handled did more to promote opposition than to create consensus. The report also pointed out that, whatever mitigating factors might be asserted, the vast majority of people opposed the cuts.

In the event, Conservative portfolio holder Richard Hobbs recommended what he termed ‘Option B’ – closure of Studley but a reprieve for Bidford. We had suspected all along that the original proposal was put forward in order to make the real proposal seem more palatable.

Although everyone in the Bidford campaign must be pleased with the assurance of a future for our fire station, Studley residents will be bitterly disappointed. Questions raised in the consultation were never answered, and it is hard to see to what extent the Conservative cabinet changed its view in response to constructive proposals by the campaigners.

A surprise victory

A surprise victory

Daniel Elliker (left) and Martin Turner prior to the final of the Warwickshire Fencing Competition

Daniel Elliker (left) and Martin Turner prior to the final of the Warwickshire Fencing Competition

Having not fenced between August 2009 and May 2010, I took a flyer on the Warwickshire County Championships, 26 June, after just two training sessions. I’d expected to be soundly thrashed in one of the early rounds, and wasn’t surprised to lose in the pool round 0:5 to Daniel Elliker of Birmingham Fencing Club. I still managed to be seeded fourth, pitting me against Richard Morris, first seed, in the semi-finals, after relatively straightforward fights in the last sixteen and the last eight. Reigning West Midlands champion, Morris has had a good year on the national competition circuit, making the last eight at the Slough Open.

Morris went almost immediately 4:1 up, exploiting a powerful fleche attack. I was fairly weary from the pool and the first two rounds — the eight fights within an hour were as much as I had done in the previous nine months. The most I could do was hold him off and attempt either to twist out of the way or to parry and riposte. By the end of the first time period, I had managed to work it up to 5:6 behind. After the one minute break, I realised that the psychological pressure was beginning to tell. Making my only attack of the fight, I was fortunate enough to step-balestra-lung, going straight past his parry to score a hit on the shoulder. This was perhaps not quite what he bargained for, and pushed him to attack repeatedly. Unfortunately for him, I had picked up the rhythm of his attack, and was able to draw him to attack with increasing speed, but decreasing effectiveness, until I was 11:7 up at the end of the second time period. In the final period he held back his attack, but, with time against him, was forced back into attacking mode, and eventually lost 15:8.

In the other semi-final, Matt Powell made an impressive come-back after being 7:11 down in a fight more characterised by the guts and determination of the fencers than by the technical superiority of one over the other. He reached 11:11 all to get back into contention, but Daniel Elliker managed to get a glancing hit which unnerved Powell, and pushed strongly to eventually win 15:12.

In the final, Daniel Elliker pushed quickly through, delivering attack after attack as I did little more than watch him. He reached 11:7 by the end of the second time period without any particular difficulty. But when he took off his mask, I saw the energy drain from his face — the exertions of the previous fight were catching up with him. Recognising that if I carried on defending as I had done in the previous fight I would be certain to lose, I took the fight to him. Regrettably my technique was nowhere near what it was a year before, and I was reduced to little better than walking up to him quickly and jabbing in a hit.

I pulled back to 13:14 behind, and I could see his reactions slowing. With about a minute left, I managed to get in a double-step-lunge. Daniel is very lithe and quick, and has long practised twisting away from the hit or doubling up to avoid the point. His counter-attack almost did for me as he pulled himself away to avoid my point, but I managed to get perhaps centimetre more than I was getting in the pool round when he beat me 5:0, and, with both lights coming on simultaneously, was awarded the point to go 14:14. Having not expected to get anywhere near this stage of the competition, I was now mortally tired, bone-weary and aching. With more or less my last strength, I fleched down his left side, landing on the piste and hitting him almost simultaneously and at the last allowable moment. There was just one light, and, for the first time, I was Warwickshire Champion.

It was almost ten minutes before I had the strength to get up again after saluting and shaking hands. Daniel had to go on to get medical attention, as he was in an extreme state of exhaustion.

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