Sockpuppeting – my final word (maybe) by Barbara Nadel

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For those of you who have been living in a sound-proofed bag for the last few months, ‘sockpuppeting’ is the process whereby an author, using an alias, praises his/her work and denigrates the efforts of others. This happens on the Internet and is, I believe, almost exclusively limited to Amazon customer reviews. So far two best selling authors have been put in the sockpuppeting frame: Steven Leather, who outed himself, and RJ Ellroy who was outed by others.

The crime fiction world has quite rightly gone berserk. That two very rich and privileged authors like these should try to acquire yet more plaudits via such dirty tactics is disgusting. But I fear that it is only the tip of what may eventually prove to be a very mucky iceberg indeed. And by this I don’t mean that there are lots of other authors out there doing what Leather and Ellroy did. I don’t. But I do think that both authors and readers do need to start viewing Amazon reviews in a different light. More thought I believe, has to be given by the potential reader to the content of the book under consideration as opposed to the opinions of others expressed in the reviews. Personally, if I am choosing a book to buy on Amazon, I don’t read ANY reviews. I choose my subject, sometimes my author, and I read the outline of the topic/plot. That’s it. Then I buy, or I don’t buy.

Before I go on to offend everyone who has ever written an Amazon review in good faith, I should say at this point that I know that there are some excellent, unbiased and very professional reviewers who put pieces up on Amazon. What I am about to say here is not aimed at you in any way. However I fear that your voices are being drowned out by ‘reviews for hire’, sockpuppeting, the work of uber fans (in favour of their beloved writer and against his or her perceived competitors) and people who just want to cause mischief and misery. For instance the practice some ‘reviewers’ have of just giving a book one star, with no actual review to back it up. This can only be an attempt to bring the rating of that book down. With no justification for this anonymous and cowardly act how can such a phenomenon like this be interpreted in any other way?

And such unpleasant behaviour is not just limited to crime fiction reviews on Amazon. I have a couple of friends who are travel writers who have a lot to say on the subject of Trip Advisor. Whilst, just like Amazon reviews, Trip Advisor reviews, if written honestly can be very useful, they can also mislead enormously. Both my friends tell tales about how hotels can increase their ratings by buying good reviews for themselves and terrible reviews for their competitors. I recently read a review about a Turkish town I know very well that stated that it had ‘nothing to see or do’ and ‘no views’. Well I suppose that if you don’t like hiking into ancient volcanic valleys, ballooning, discovering early Christian frescos in weird fairy chimney like structures, vibrant night life and breathtaking vistas, you would be bored stiff. But more seriously if you had never visited that town, then that review may very well put you off. And that would be a shame for you, the town and its reputation.

The trouble with the whole reviewing process is that not only is it open to abuse and the cancer of personal interest, it is also something that is affected by personal opinion. I very rarely review the work of other authors myself. I don’t feel confident to criticise others whose fictional worlds I have very little knowledge about. On the few occasions I have ventured in to criticism I have tried to be honest and appreciative whilst always maintaining positivity about what they have achieved. Only once did I dislike a book intensely and that book I refused to review because I recognised something in my thought processes that disturbed me. I didn’t like that book because I found the location bland and the heroine irritated me because she was forever out running. I couldn’t relate. But that was my personal opinion. As a crime novel it was good – that things germane to its plot irritated me, was my problem. Another reader may well have been charmed by just the things I found annoying. And that is the point about reviews. Putting aside personal interest, sockpuppeting, uber fans, etc., etc., a review is a personal opinion about something and is therefore open to dispute. My little town in Turkey may very well be boring to some people, to me it never ceases to fascinate. But both of those points of view are personal opinions and both and neither can or cannot be correct.

Maybe as a psychology graduate I poke about too deeply into these matters, but I can’t help it. Committing personal opinion to paper or otherwise into the public domain is a serious matter – it is something I think that a lot of people have forgotten.

What has also been forgotten too I think if that the recipient of sockpuppeteer/uber fan/mischief maker vitriol is helpless in this situation. Responding to bile just seems to produce more of the stuff and can make the victim look as if he or she is desperate to defend him or herself because deep down he or she is as bad as the reviewer says. I know of only one person, in the travel industry, who responded to a bad reviewer. She subsequently went through months and months of hellish abuse that ranged from the unpleasant right up to the outright threatening. Milder abuse than that outlined above, has in the past caused people to make attempts on their own lives. I know I used to work in a psychiatric hospital.

I probably won’t talk about this subject again, at least not in the near future because it upsets me. Messrs Leather and Ellroy have brought crime fiction into disrepute and most of their peers are sickened by their actions. However if any good comes out of this situation at all, I think it will be if the whole sockpuppeting debacle makes people in general think about what they write and what they do to others on-line. The Internet is nobody’s personal fiefdom and what you give out you have to be able to take as well. We all need to think about what we write and how our personal opinions may affect the feelings, lives and careers of other people, organisations and even small Turkish towns.

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