Authors no longer have to impress stodgy English majors to get their book a quality review: new research from the Harvard Business Review shows that the aggregate rating of Amazon reviewers are every bit as good as professional book critics.
Professional book critics, on the other hand, suffer from nepotism: critics give more favorable reviews to their colleagues, authors who agree with their ideological slant, and if the book has been given an award by other critics. The result, implies this new research, is that Amazon has democratized the book reviewing process, with consumer reviewers less beholden to special interests and more representative of the book-reading masses. Perhaps most importantly, it rebuts critics who have claimed that Amazon is nothing more than a cauldron of corrupt and uneducated opinions.
Despite the strict editorial firewall between writers and commercial interests, “reviewers may not always have the incentive to provide objective reviews,” explain Professors Dobrescu, Luca and Motta in a new study of the professional book review industry. Newspapers and magazines are 25% more likely to offer a review of an author who has written for their publication before; unsurprisingly, the reviews are slightly more positive. Moreover, professional reviews suffer from self-congratulatory institutional nepotism: novice authors get slammed more often than established ones, especially if they haven’t won any awards.
The new research provides ample firepower against academic critics of consumer reviews, who say that Amazon is a circus of corrupt and uneducated reviewers.
“The democratization of reviewing is synonymous with the decay of reviewing,” lamented Professor of English Morris Dickstein, “The professional reviewer, who has a literary identity, who had to meet some editor’s exacting standard, has effectively been replaced by the Amazon reviewer, the paying customer, at times ingenious, assiduous, and highly motivated, more often banal, obtuse, and blankly opinionated.”
Others have implied that Amazon contains far worse than uncritical literary buffoons; Cornell professor Trevor Pinch, discovered systemic corruption within the ranks of top 1,000 Amazon reviewers, many of whom are given perks for good reviews or abstaining from bad ones.
But, if Amazon really is a literally cesspool, why did Dobrescu and his colleagues find that consumer reviews were nearly identical, on average, to professional critics, (under conditions when professionals would not be biased)? The likely explanation is what social scientists call the “wisdom of crowds.” A randomly selected consumer reviewer is no match for a professional reviewer, but the average opinion of all laymen is less biased than an expert.
This fact was famously discovered by Sir Francis Galton, who found that crowds of people were astonishingly good at guessing the weight of a cow, despite individual guesses being all over the map. Stupid answers are tossed around the actual right answer in equal proportion, marking the truth like treasure on a map surrounded by circular dots (for a fun video explanation of the wisdom of the crowds, check out the PBS video below featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson).
Moreover, psychologists have long known that experts are not the bastions of objective intellectual rigor that they are often made out to be. Berkeley Political Psychologist, Philip Tetlock, famously found that experts are no better at forecasting the future or interpreting evidence than the average layman; and, sometimes, they perform worse than randomly guessing. In Louis Menand’s words, experts “are poorer forecasters than dart-throwing monkeys.” Experts, Tetlock found, are biased by their own pre-conceived worldviews, and simply use more sophisticated analysis to unwittingly justify what they already believe.
In other words, both professionals and amateurs are susceptible to bias. But, on Amazon, the masses moderate the corruption, partisanship, and stupidity peppered throughout the crowd. In contrast, we rarely read more than one professional book review, leaving our purchasing decisions up the view of one mind.
At the very least, even if Amazon is biased, consumers will have far more in common with one another than a professional critic. So, as you’re deciding what new political tell-all will accompany you on your next plane flight, feel confident that the unpolished democratic masses have your best interests in mind.