The Review of Reviews
New York Times Editorial
August 3, 2004

The beginning of the end came last February, when anonymous book reviews on's Canadian site were posted with reviewers' real names. For some, it was an embarrassing unmasking. Several authors had raved about their own books. A number of reviewers had tried to skew the Amazon system, supporting friends or attacking enemies with anonymous or pseudonymous reviews. What kept this from being merely laughable is the scale of Amazon's business and the role customers' reviews play in its social and financial economy. Like eBay, is a community, and trust is one of its most important commodities. Just visit Amazon's discussion boards if you don't believe it.

That's why Amazon recently stopped accepting anonymous customer reviews, replacing them with a program called Real Names. Reviewers who use their own names will have a Real Name badge posted next to their reviews. (Pen Names are permitted, but they're less acceptable.) According to its Web site, Amazon believes that "a community in which people use their Real Names will ultimately have higher-quality content."

That is certainly possible. The problem is proving your identity. To get a Real Name, you must have a credit card on file or "a reasonable purchase history." What "reasonable" means is up to the company. If you use a credit card, your identity becomes synonymous with its number, which is not made public, of course. That may be a mordant comment on the state of modern identity, but, as some Amazon reviewers have noted, it's hardly an ironclad guarantee against reviewer fraud.

Real Names is as much about adding subtlety to Amazon's internal ranking system as it is about outing cheaters. In fact, there's something eerily recursive about the entire situation. Customers review Amazon's products. Customers also review other customers' reviews. Your "reputation" depends upon the reviews of your reviews, and your reviews get more weight with a "Real Name" badge, which prevents you from reviewing yourself. But in the discussion boards - which only true zealots see - reviewers often discuss reviews of their reviews. In the end, it's probably easier just to go to the library and browse.

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- tom moody 8-03-2004 7:09 pm

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