Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Everyone's got one. Reviewing the Reviewers

I started this blog entry weeks ago, but let it languish while I was thinking it through and doing other things. Then my attention was pointed to this article: Reviewers for hire... and I decided the world was ready for it.

Every person who uses the internet has a valuable commodity: their opinion. Opinions in one form or another undoubtedly account for an easy majority of all web content. People who voice their opinions inform all the rest of us. When someone throws their opinion out into the great opinion heap of the web, they add to its collective wisdom (and folly).

Everyone knows that opinions are like, well, you know what, and most of them stink. That's why people who have informed, well-thought-out opinions are like gold. When we find people who form their opinions carefully and with reason, we tend to pay attention. At their best, the opinionators give a careful analysis of the facts that informs and illuminates their audience. By listening to them, we can inform our own opinion—whether we agree with the opinionators conclusion or not. Once we find an opinionator who routinely agree with our sensibilities, we often forgo reading their reasons and just adopt their opinion. We have to.

There is way too much information out there for us form our own independent opinions on all of it, but when we are at a party, we don't want to appear to be ignorant about a subject, or say something stupid about it. It's the opinionators that save us. They do the work and we reap the rewards of impressing other people with our savvy. For example, I KNOW “Fifty Shades of Gray” is poorly written erotica that is not even a good example of it's genre, because people I trust have told me so. Have I read it? No. Do I have an opinion? YES! How cool is that?

Well informed opinions are valuable. Good ones take time to formulate and state. Well known opinionators (a.k.a Pundits, Columnists, Bloggers, and Reviewers) routinely get paid to give their opinions—and they should. Valuable services deserve compensation.

Then we come to advertisement. Advertiser's seek to influence and inform opinion in a shamelessly biased, easily digested, and tasty way. We know it, we expect it, and we defend against it. In newspapers, they clearly flag opinions and thoughtfully label their advertising so we know to take it with a grain or two of salt.

On the web? Not so much. It's terribly easy to disguise ads as true opinions. It's sneaky, underhanded, and just good business. It works, it makes money and as long as that is true, it is unstoppable. What's a poor opinion-eater to do? How do we protect ourselves?

We use science! We keep databases of our opinions on the opinionators. We track the opinionators and log their opinions, and then serve them up in tasty info-graphics or ridiculously simplified scoring systems. We track the opinionator's street-cred, or web-cred as the case may be.

Ideally, the thought-police will track every publicly stated opinion and action ever made by anyone and let us all know about it. Unfortunately, that is a bit unwieldy, unreasonable, and creepy to boot. Fortunately, even an extremely simplified version of this information in a limited domain would still be useful. Of course, as an author, I'm primarily interested in the opinions of readers and book reviewers, so I'll explore that market.

Reviewing the Reviewers
Amazon has made a start at ranking reviewers. You can go to Amazon reviewers and see their ranking of ten thousand reviewers. They form their ranking system simply based on how many people find their reviews helpful. As I said, its a start, but it is not all that useful. First, it only tracks Amazon reviewers (reasonably enough) and second, their ranking system is opaque and limited.

It's hard to believe, but there are highly ranked Amazon book reviewers out there who dislike fantasy. Who knew? What happens when one of them is temped/tricked/coerced into reading a fantasy book? They will read it, and then write a careful and considered review trashing the poor writing and ridiculous concepts they find therein. The book gets panned, and the author slinks off in disgrace, vowing revenge against the world. A new potential, highly imaginative super-villain is born. Tragic. Not a result anyone wants.

So, what we need to see is a standardized scoring system for each reviewer. In addition to a helpfulness rank, we want to know the total number of review's they have foisted upon the world. We want to know the average score they give. We want that broken down by genre. Then, when we see this person's review, we will know if it should carry any weight with us. We could form a grid like the one below.

Reviews of My Fantastic Fantasy
Genre: Fantasy
Sub Genre: Alligators (optional field)

What does this tell us? Everything! Guess which 2 reviewers review for money. Guess which of those give honest reviews for money. Guess which one is the writer's mother or father. Guess which one is our embittered embryonic super-villain striking back at the world. Guess which one is an orthodontist. OK, so not EVERYTHING, but who cares if a reader has straight teeth?

We can take it even further if we want. We can give more weight to a person whose opinions have been rated the most helpful, collect standard deviations and come up with a single number which allows us to rank reviewers like Amazon does, though we will expose our formulas to all. We could use number theory to detect collusion like the on-line poker sites. How cool is that?

I don't know about you, but this is what I want to see as a reader and a writer. So, get out there and do it, I'm busy writing.

No comments:

Post a Comment