The New Gatekeepers

Democracy has come to creativity, and capitalism has come to overwhelm democracy.

I am, of course, talking about the Amazon review scandal that has come to light, revealing that as many as 1/3 of all reviews on Amazon were bought and paid for. This is a catastrophe for everyone involved — musicians, writers, consumers, and Amazon.com. The essential problem with this system is found in this comment by Stanford professor Robert Sutton: “Nearly all human beings have unrealistically positive self-regard.”

That’s fine. That’s the voice in the back of our heads that tells us we have something meaningful to contribute to the world-at-large. This is a good voice and it should be cultivated because it’s right — we do have something meaningful to contribute to the world-at-large. Every single one of us. What we may not each have, though, is something meaningful to contribute to consumers. Only the consumers themselves can tell us that, and that mechanism is being actively subverted.

The good news is, we can do something about this. We’re the new gatekeepers, after all.

Dude, not cool. 400 people on Amazon told me this box
was full of 5-star awesome.

But first, here’s why this is not a victimless “crime.” How, in fact, it victimizes everybody it touches.

Authors paying for comments: You’re being robbed, and you’re being fooled if you believe this is “marketing.” It is not. There is an implicit (and explicit, if you ask the Federal Trade Commission, or Sony, who had to pay $1.5 million after writing its own fake reviews) agreement between marketers and their audience that the audience will be able to tell the difference between marketing (“spin”) and peer-to-peer communication. But the larger fact is that you are denying yourself the self-knowledge that is necessary for meaningful art to take place. Everybody wants their ego massaged (I do), but the people I know and have been a lifelong fan of who are tremendous writers are always terrified they suck. F. Scott Fitzgerald died thinking himself a failure. It is, in my experience, the people who are most convinced of their greatness that actually kinda stink a lot. Buying 5-star reviews won’t tell you what you need to know in order to grow as a writer or musician. Plus, you will likely spend more, and quickly, than you will ever see in returns.
Authors not paying for comments: Those of us playing the game “the right way” suffer because when we do land a genuinely positive review — even a glowing one — it is immediately suspect and likely to be disregarded. Now that Amazon is under fire for this egregious exploitation of its system, changes are likely to come, and they are not likely to make it easier for real people to offer legitimate reviews of works.
Consumers: This is pretty obvious. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Consumers who roll the dice on independent, self-published music, stories, or books are not likely to do it again if the quality they receive is evidently terrible. It used to be that agents, editors, and publishers performed the essential gatekeeping function of saving us from things that, by and large, are fundamentally not worth our time. Those people still exist, but they’ve been circumvented. This is probably for the best. Their gate was narrow and excluded things that millions of people in various niches would find essential and moving. But that doesn’t mean that anybody wants to be duped.
What do we do?!?! Review things! I cannot tell you how important it is to independent artists to get reviews on their product pages (especially on iTunes, where you can disappear in a hurry). That’s why this whole pay-for-reviews thing exists. So please, if you are enjoying something — an album, EP, novel, short story — produced by somebody outside the mainstream, take a few minutes and post how it’s affected you.  I know it can be awkward to jump into the fray, but your support has real, and often immediate, results. I’m putting my money where my mouth is and reviewing a bunch of music on Amazon right now.
And to fellow artists and writers, I’ll just add that, look, your book probably doesn’t deserve five stars. You probably haven’t written The Great Gatsby. My new record may not deserve five stars. But I’d be quite happy with four. I think as creators, maybe we should adjust our expectations. 
Should you want to offer a review of the new Sci-Fi Romance album, The Ghost of John Henry, you can do so at iTunes or Amazon. Just saying.
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