Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Book-Killers Of The Amazon Jungle?

Several years ago, I noted a news report that claimed anti-climate change trolls tried to sabotage sales of a book on climate change using one- or two-star Amazon reviews. I can't remember the details now as I forgot to save the link to the report or the book in question.

But I guess after Hurricane Sandy, a lot more people are thinking, "Come to think of it, our summers have been warmer lately...".

Now, another book is being threatened by an even greater, more insidious force: Michael Jackson fans.

From a 'speed read' of Randall Sullivans' book, Untouchable is largely sympathetic towards the late King of Pop and not nearly as kind to his siblings. The usual advice when it comes to such books is the best: take it with a pinch of salt. Or, as Michiko-san puts it: "Fans of Jackson's talent ... would be way better off viewing that documentary — or YouTube clips of the Motown show — than reading this bloated and thoroughly dispensable book."

But you know how some MJ fans are.

A group of such fans claimed credit for the rush of one-star Amazon reviews of Untouchable, sales of which seem to be buckling under all the negativity thrown its way. Out of the 16,000 copies distributed, only 3,000 were reportedly sold. One of the people behind this campaign said it was a "moral responsibility" to make sure the book tanks.

I'd like to believe that it was more due to the negative reviews by more mainstream voices. A reviewer in the LA Times, for instance, called it "a joyless slog".

...Still, I can't help but compare these guys to the so-called defenders of the US Constitution's Second Amendment. Especially when their actions seem driven by emotion and unfounded assumptions that something they hold dear is being threatened.

"Books used to die by being ignored, but now they can be killed — and perhaps unjustly killed," said Cornell sociologist Trevor Pinch, who studied reviews on Amazon, in The New York Times.

These days, we probably shouldn't expect or assume that objective, hardcore journalism is the sole reason behind the release of celebrity biographies, especially those that revolve around controversial personalities such as Jackson. But what about books that should be read? Books that are written by credible authors quoting unimpeachable sources?

Feelings about a book is part of a review. When a 'review' is mostly feelings or conjecture without the backing of fact or elaboration, it's just opinion, to be taken even more lightly than an 'actual' review.

Far from a show of solidarity for a maligned idol or "moral responsibility" in action, the negative campaign against Sullivan's Untouchable seems to confirm the possibility that the fate of a book - and to an extent, a writer's livelihood - can be determined via remotely directed mob justice.

Certain parties who are not fond of things found in books they don't like, even if it's just a paragraph, line or even a single word can now bury it, perhaps forever, with emotion-fuelled rants and falsehoods spread online by people who believe only what they want to believe.

As if there's not enough trouble already out there that keeps writers and publishers up at night.

So what if Randall Sullivan did get some things right or wrong in that book? How much does that matter now? Jackson's gone. One might not be able to libel the dead, but for Sullivan's career to be threatened or possibly ended by an angry virtual mob is also an injustice itself.

If the worst happens, will anyone claim 'moral responsibility' for the death of a writer's career?

Amazon can look away and pray this mess away, but if it's serious about making the product comments section a viable feedback tool, it needs to find ways to keep the trolls out. Too many comment threads out there resemble the insides of a chamber pot, and it won't be too long before Amazon's will be equally useless.

After all, wasn't Amazon set up to sell stuff in the first place?


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