Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Unsocking The Puppets

The sock puppetry scandal tarnishing online product reviews is gaining momentum. Consider a paper just issued by Gartner, Inc., a prestigious publicly traded information technology research and advisory company. Gartner predicts that come 2014 somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of all online social media product and service reviews will be bogus, planted surreptitiously by enterprises hawking their own stuff under the false cloaks of authentically enthused independent consumers. Sock puppetry is becoming sufficiently widespread to attract decidedly unfavorable attention from the Federal Trade Commission; so much so that the FTC is reportedly preparing to aim its litigious ire at a couple of Fortune 500 companies to expose and punish them for their online review scams.

As discussed in a post published on Gazalapalooza a few days ago, the modern book industry is far from immune from this sad charade. A few days after that post, contributor David Vinjamuri, who teaches branding and social media at New York University, wrote an insightful article about sock puppet book reviews on Amazon and its Internet brethren. Vinjamuri’s article deserves exploration by authors and readers alike. It attracted many thoughtful comments, including from renowned British author Stephen Leather, who found himself (perhaps unjustifiably) called out in Vinjamuri’s piece for sock pupetting.

I was one of the folks who commented on Vinjamuri’s piece. That comment, and Vinjamuri’s ruminative reply to it, comprise the rest of this Gazalapalooza post. Rampant sock pupetting is a serious topic with poisonous implications for otherwise invaluable online word-of-mouth reviews and discourse about whether given books are worth reading. It affects every one of us who rely on (what we assume are) the bona fide opinions of our social networking peers regarding the precious time and money we invest in books.

The recording industry and book publishing business models are close cousins. Many reasons Tower Records’ shops and Borders’ stores are extinct overlap. So it’s no surprise to find ample precedent in the record industry for the sock puppetry trend in online book reviews. A similar practice went unchecked for years in American radio. It’s an illegal practice popularly termed “Payola.”

In the 1950s radio stations were exposed for placing into heavy on-air rotation primarily songs which they had been paid to play. The reason was plain — the more the song aired, the higher it rose on hit lists, and the more sales it garnered. The few record companies and promoters who failed or refused to engage in the graft saw their records receive scant airplay, if any. This was particularly so with new labels and artists.

Payola is sock puppetry’s clear antecedent. To get radio’s stamp of approval (i.e, positive review via heavy airplay) for your song, you paid. If you didn’t pay, the clear implication to the marketplace was your song wasn’t good enough to be on the air (i.e., bad review via scarce airplay), and few would ever discover or buy it.

The payola scandal rocked radio to its core. It caused considerable damage to the reputation of Alan Freed (who was at the time arguably America’s premier disc jockey), and threatened Dick Clark’s career sufficiently to induce him to sell his record company interests and assist government authorities in uncovering the racket.

The result was federal legislation, still on the books today, requiring radio stations to announce on-air that any song played for compensation is sponsored airtime. Such songs may not be included in a radio station’s regular airplay for purposes of tabulating rotation for hit song compilations.

The distance between payola and sock puppetry is slight. Deceptive positive book reviews are driven by quest for financial remuneration, whether via clandestinely paid reviewers or by an author praising his own work pseudonymously to boost sales. Likewise, deceptive negative book reviews are driven at least in part to quash rival authors’ sales in favor one’s own.

Accordingly, both legal precedent and mechanism presently exist for outlawing sock puppetry, which is nothing but an Internet-based bastardization of payola. It’s true, given the easy guise and ubiquity of Internet anonymity and without a broadcast license under FCC control to discourage bad behavior, enforcement could prove more problematic on Amazon than in radio. Nonetheless, requiring full disclosure under penalty of law of reviewers’ identities and compensation, is a tried-and-true step in the right direction. It won’t completely eradicate the problem, just as it hasn’t done in radio. But the payola remedy can stigmatize sock puppeteers’ and their enablers’ reputations, and expose them to legal consequence for fraudulent practices. That’s a start.

I’m extremely impressed with your argument and I agree. I think that in one of my earlier responses to Mr. Leather’s comments I actually mentioned “pay to play,” referring to the payola scandal. The sense is that because this has gone on so long and is so pervasive that it is an accepted business practice. In every article written about this issue and in many of the comments by those accused of this behavior you hear that refrain “everyone does it.” The unstated assumption is that the system will never change. But just like a chemical system which remains stable to a certain temperature and then undergoes rapid, destabilizing change I believe that this system of wanton, anonymous self-promotion and systematic gaming will have to come to an end. You can make a reasonable argument that it has been profitable for Amazon up until now to ignore or at least try to minimize these issues. But as individual authors realize that they’ve been wronged and more and more cases of this behavior come to light, the tipping point will be reached and the system will change quickly and profoundly. I only hope that the next iteration leaves room for undiscovered writers to be found.

"This seems to be the American way of life, which is a wonderful way of life. 
It is primarily built on romance. I'll do for you. What will you do for me?"
~~WILD Disc Jockey Stan Richard~~

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