Egomaniacs anonymous

commentary People have enough trouble trusting what they read on the Internet without having to worry what axe an author has to grind. One of my favourite monthly publications from several years ago was the New York-based and now defunct SPY  magazine.



commentary People have enough trouble trusting what they read on the Internet without having to worry what axe an author has to grind.

One of my favourite monthly publications from several years ago was the New York-based and now defunct SPY  magazine. In it, they often had a small feature entitled "Log Rolling in Our Time". All it contained were lists of review blurbs from book jackets--reviews where one writer would praise another writer's book followed by, strangely enough, an example where the reviewed writer provided a good review for the reviewer's book in return.

I was reminded of the custom of log rolling when an even more bizarre practice came to light the other dayââ,¬"thanks to a glitch in the Canadian Amazon.com site. For approximately one week, the true identities of thousands of people who had posted what they thought were anonymous book reviews were revealed on the site. While it might be embarrassing for the world to know who really thought The Bridges of Madison County  was the best book they'd ever read, the real zinger in this revelation is in the number of authors that had anonymously given themselves five-star reviews.

For example, according to Amy Harmon's account of the incident in The New York Times  : "John Rechy, author of the best-selling 1963 novel City of Night  and winner of the PEN-USA West lifetime achievement award, is one of several prominent authors who have apparently pseudonymously written themselves five-star reviews, Amazon's highest rating. Rechy, who laughed about it when approached, sees it as a means to survival when online stars mean sales."

Several other similar instances were also included in the report, and while it doesn't surprise me that this kind of thing goes on (it's happened plenty of times without the Internet as a vehicle), I am astounded by the cavlier attitude of those authors that were caught out. Another writer "admitted privately--and gleefully--to anonymously criticising a more prominent novelist who he felt had unfairly reaped critical praise for years." Yet another, who gave his own book a rave review on Amazon, admitted to doing the same thing "one or two times before".

Things go downhill rapidly from there. More cases are described--citing examples from authors' friends and enemies, ex-boyfriends, and hometown schoolmates--until it reaches the point where one has to wonder whether or not the whole anonymous book review scheme is just one big family bitch-fest. Daytime soap operas don't have this much going on.

Now I'm all for defending the importance of maintaining people's right to anonymity online, but doesn't all this show that there are some places where it does nothing for the online experience?

What's the use of having supposedly "helpful" reviews of books, restaurants, CDs, or even IT products if you've got to worry about the bias of the reviewer? The Internet has always been a medium that's had to struggle with source credibility, but with cases like these it's no wonder our surveys have shown the IT community to be growing ever more cynical.

Whatever the arguments for anonymity on the Net, it can't get in the way of accountability of content--unless, of course, you're happy to make all your buying decisions based on the latest Weblogs. And that reminds me: in a final tribute to SPY  , putting up promotions for other Weblogs on your own blog page has come to be known as "blog rolling".

How much do you trust what you read on the Internet? And are rating systems of any use to you when evaluating products? Let me know by sending your comments to edit@zdnet.com.au.

And let me take this opportunity to say that nominations for Australia's most influential IT personality are still open. Send us the name of the person you feel is influential, inspirational, and insightful, with a brief description why.

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