Amazon Secret Weapon No. 1376: the race for recognition
By David Walker (Google profile)
Some days it seems that Amazon really has pioneered most of the smartest ideas on the Internet.
Take Amazon's reviews - reviews of books, of CDs, of software and other other items. Though Amazon employs professional reviewers and buys in outside product reviews, its reputation as a review powerhouse rests with its vast array of user reviews, all written for free. And the readers who come for the reviews stay to transact.
Such "user-created content" has recently captured the imagination of Internet commerce practitioners. Some 45 per cent of site executives surveyed by Jupiter Media Metrix in early 2000 already had user-created content on their site, and another 44 per cent planned to add it.
Sites facilitating user-created content face one great hurdle: great writing, analysis, music and video require a level of skill which not everyone possesses. Repeated exposure to true user-created music (as opposed to copies of commercial recordings) may rot your eardrums; the stock tips posted on financial sites hold even less value than stock tips from stockbrokers.
To encourage skilled content creators, you need to offer an incentive. Sites have toyed with small payments, well under the 65 cents a word or more paid to professional content creators; back when the Internet Bubble was still round and fat, a few sites even mused about offering shares to amateur content contributors. These strategies have not brought success. And there's some economic evidence to suggest that payments to previously amateur content creators may actually sap their enthusiasm. Amazon, however, attracts astonishingly high-quality comments from its users. And it does so even though the sheer volume of user reviews makes thorough vetting impossible.
What is the quality of Amazon's book reviews? Take Brad Delong, listed among Amazon's top 1000 reviewers. Brad is Professor of Economics at Berkeley, co-editor of the prestigious Journal of Economic Perspectives, and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy in the US Treasury. He's also a wonderful writer, one of that rare breed of explainers whom George Orwell had in mind when he equated clear writing with clear thinking. Media giant Time-Warner pays him handsomely to write a regular column for Fortune magazine.
Professor Delong has posted 22 book reviews to Amazon - reviews of books on everything from Xerox PARC to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. All at no cost at all to the site. When I last checked, Professor Delong held a share of 679th place on the top 1000 list. Among those tied with him were physicist Professor Joseph McCaulley of the University of Houston, who also writes fairly intelligent prose. Amazon's reviewer lists are littered with this calibre of contributor.
Book reviewers come to Amazon because it's where the bulk of intelligent, Internet-using bookbuyers come to shop. Some people would call it a book-buying "community". Actually, it's both more and less than this. It's a marketplace - a marketplace where the currency is some combination of recognition, respect and goodwill. Amazon users vote on whether reviews were helpful. And Amazon mixes those votes together to create its very noticeable reviewer rankings. New reviews boost a reviewer's ranking. The race-for-recognition system doesn't always produce perfect results. Some reviewers engage in concerted campaigns to promote their rankings, enlisting friend to vote for them and against rival reviewers or simply manipulating their own online identities. Meanwhile, Amazon itself busily (and somewhat dishonestly) buries and even deletes many unfavorable reviews of books and other products. Despite all this, Amazon's voting system keeps reviewers writing, and the overall quality of Amazon's reviews remains admirable.
Other sites are now copying Amazon's write-for-recognition formula - among them the increasingly popular reviews-of-everything site Epinions and the ambitious open-source encyclopedia Nupedia.com. If you plan to join the user-created content boom, you probably need to encourage a race for recognition among your own content creators.