Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Cyberbullying & the ugly side of book reviews - Part 1

The craziness quotient on the Internet, and on book review sites in particular, is getting out of hand. 

Back in early 2006 I discovered a popular blog written by a literary agent, and for almost half a year I was addicted to its mix of snark, practical advice, humour and cameraderie. It wasn't long, however, before I discovered a disquieting underside to the blog. I'd never heard of cyberbullying then, but it was there that I first saw the phenomenon at work.

Some of the fans on the site were rabid in their attacks on anyone who challenged or dared to disagree with anything their idol, the literary agent, wrote. In her defence, the agent handled herself admirably even under dire provocation, and the time or two that she snapped it was both entertaining and understandable. It was some of her hardcore followers who were the problem.

The agent seemed particularly antagonistic to vanity presses and at one point she called for what amounted to a cyber attack against those she listed as the worst offenders. I think she herself must have been taken aback by what ensued: her loyal hordes ran off baying to do her bidding and bombard search engines with targeted blog posts and comments about the companies and personnel, linking back, I assume (I'm not too clear on the actual mechanics of cyber warfare), to the websites under scrutiny. 

If the exercise was meant to be an experiment in social engineering, it was successful beyond belief. Soon, the gleeful reports from the faithful started coming in: the articles, with their guided accusations, allegations and agreed-upon subject headings, soared to the top of the search rankings with an efficiency that had to be seen to be believed as page after page of the items posted by the bloggers pushed the normal results for the targeted presses further and further down the search rankings.

I was horrified. The agent had said that these presses preyed on clueless aspiring authors, but I wondered how much research her followers actually did for themselves before going on the attack. It seemed to me that they took the agent's evaluation of these companies and individuals at face value and ran with that. The 
entities may or may not have deserved the take-down, but that was not the main issue. What I found profoundly disturbing was that a mob blindly followed the instructions of someone they revered to inflict harm on other people without a second thought. History is soaked with the blood of those who were victims of blind obeisance such as this.

Fast forward to 2012 and the problem of cyberbullying on book review sites and blogs. A year or so ago a self-published writer made the rookie mistake of publicly taking a blog reviewer to task for a less than stellar review. News of the ensuing kerfuffle whizzed around the Internet and the writer was roundly castigated by hundreds of commenters on the blog. The frenzy snowballed as she kept popping up in the comment trail practically begging for more abuse, even descending to the use of profane language at times. 

That writer learned a hard lesson (at least, one hopes she did) about taking reviewers to task for their opinions of her work. Did it stop there? No. The truly disturbing part is what came after: many of those commenters sought out her book on Amazon and bombarded it with egregious, one-star reviews. The book may or may not have merited the reviews, but many of the reviewers never read it, and said as much. It was nothing short of a lynching, a gang-bang, a malicious and hysterical attack by a mob bent on destroying a writer because of her error in judgement on a blog. 

I've since learned that the reviewer gang-bang has become common on Amazon, Goodreads and other book sites. There are authors who live in terror of being targeted, and there are authors who have been targeted in the manner described, whose personal lives have been mined and disrupted, and who have been victims of death wishes, and even death threats. 

There are readers and reviewers who do and say stupid things. There are authors who do the same. While I support readers' rights to find a book - any book - not to their taste and rate it however they desire, forming gangs to 'take down' authors against whom they hold some grudge, or even random authors, is despicable and cowardly. 

There's another side to this. There are authors who don't play fair on the review sites and whose manipulation of the ratings may be contributing to the hostility of many readers/reviewers. In Part 2 we'll take a look at some of the abuses being perpetrated by authors.

I have a brand new Facebook page! All 'likes' appreciated. :) Liane Spicer


Graeme K Talboys said...

Sadly, there will always be mobs, but I suspect the degree of distance and anonymity afforded by the internet means that people who would not normally say boo to a goose allows them to unleash their inner beast. It would help if sites like Amazon (where comments are linked to your account) didn't allow anonymous or pseudonymous comments.

What I find most difficult to understand is the mentality of people who take the time to do all this. They clearly don't spend much actual time reading. Does anyone know if the music world, which also has a lot of indie artists, suffers the same problems?

The only time I've had a really vituperative (and highly inaccurate) review was in an academic journal. I wrote a calm, closely argued rebuttal, but the editor said it was best not to get into an argument over that sort of thing. When I asked why he printed the original review I received no further reply and left it at that. Since then I have ignored negative comments online although I do tend to say thank you to people who have made the effort to write proper reviews, even if they didn't much like the book.

William Doonan said...

Wow - this is a sobering post! How did this get to be such a cut-throat business?

Lynn Emery said...

Not new actually. I've seen various forms of this since I entered the world of the internet way back in the early to mid 90s. People are people, be they mobs with pitchforks and torches, or a keyboard.

Liane Spicer said...

Graeme, so good to see you!

I've been thinking for awhile that the anonymous nature of the Internet will have to change at some point. Right now there's far too little accountability.

I don't think any normal, level-headed person will ever be able to understand the mindset of the mobs. I've stopped trying. I have a hands-off policy: I ignore the slashers (I've had two to date) and I thank the people who post glowing reviews when they contact me directly.

Liane Spicer said...

William, I don't know. It seems that people behaving badly is the new black. Thank goodness the decent, kind people I've encountered online outnumber the others 100 to 1.

Liane Spicer said...

Lynn, thanks for that reality check. I didn't start using the Internet until the late 90s, and didn't start using social media until 2006, so I would have missed the early manifestations of the ugliness.

I honestly believe, though, that anonymity plays a huge part in unleashing people's inner beasts, as Graeme put it. It provides the cover that hoods, masks and sheets did in times past.

Unknown said...

This was a fantastic post. For being a new or indie author some readers are more judgemental compared to seasoned writers. Instead of giving the writer a chance they just bring the writer down.

What I find horrifying is that people don't even spend the time to read the work before rating it. I do my best not to give a poor rating on any book because each book has merit in some way. I understand being a new writer is difficult and any great review is helpful while bad reviews are daunting.

I think readers and people need to be less critical and listen to every bad review. Some books people dislike I have loved. Writers have to remain strong and never take it personally...if that is possible.

Jewel Amethyst said...

It is a sad downside to the access that the internet give to readers, reviewers and authors alike. As I mentioned in my post a while back, this type of behavior diminishes the status of authors, reviewers and even readers.

If people can learn to conduct themselves professionally, even when there is anonymity, such witch hunts and gang-banging would be a thing of the past.

Writing is a profession. Writers are professionals. The same applies to reviewers. Both writers and reviewers are providing a service to readers. We need to conduct ourselves professionally and with temperance in order to give the best service to our readers.

G. B. Miller said...

Sadly, this is nothing new, at least to me.

I spent the better part of three and a half years ('07-'11) participating in the chat rooms.

While I've only experienced a smattering this kind of abuse (stalking, harassment), I've seen it performed full bore on others.

Sad part was that the website in question actively encouraged it and never really enforced their Terms of Service unless they needed to show the legal beagles due dilligence.

That kind of stuff is why I moderate comments on my blog. Don't like to, but I find its a necessary evil in today's world.

Liane Spicer said...

Megan, welcome to Novel Spaces. I agree that rating/reviewing a book one hasn't read is dishonest and an abuse of the review privilege.

Liane Spicer said...

Jewel, writers are supposed to be professionals, whereas the same is no longer true of reviewers. Any reader can be a reviewer in this democratic Internet age - even if said reader has never read the book in question.

What is a professional anyway? Someone who has spent years learning and honing skills in a speciality and who is paid to perform at a high level. Maybe expecting professional behaviour from many of the parties involved in the behaviour described is asking too much.

Liane Spicer said...

G.B. Miller, the reason so much of this is shocking to me is probably because I've avoided chat rooms. I ventured into a few in the early years and ran like hell.

My experience with blogging has been 99.9% positive, though. People have been (almost) unfailingly decent. I've never had to resort to comment moderation and hope I never have to.

G. B. Miller said...

Liane: If I had any smarts back then, I probably would've ran too, but then again, I probably wouldn't be here today if I didn't stick around.

Still, having to moderate comments is the one true dark side of blogging. If you've experienced a level of discomfort that is out of the norm because of what you do or who you are, then you want to protect yourself at all times.

While I do moderate, I've also let about 99% of what people say come through. I don't like censorship in any form, with the only exception being myself, so I try my best to let people say what they want to say on my blog.

Chris Stovell said...

This is certainly a sobering post, Liane. Valid criticism of work goes with the territory of putting yourself out there; we may not enjoy it, but it may help us to improve (when we've stopped smarting!). Malice is just horrid, wherever it occurs.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Liane, I've had one reader post a review on Amazon that said the ending was a downer because the hero and the heroine doesn't get together. That couldn't be farther from the truth as there is a wedding at the end. Clearly that person did not read the book.

Thankfully, other readers who reviewed the book for Amazon pointed out that error.

That is a problem with some Amazon reviews, even on products (other than books). I see ratings and reviews from people who haven't yet used the products or are anticipating reading the book. There should be a requirement for reviewing that a detailed summary be made of the book first so that we can ensure that these people actually read the book.

Liane Spicer said...

G.B. Miller, I haven't experienced it but I have buddies and acquaintances with writing blogs similar to mine who've had to moderate after being targeted by trolls or people just bent on being nasty. One even had a situation with an ex-boyfriend who wouldn't leave her alone.

I've seen bloggers change their identities and start new blogs after being harassed. People can get pretty weird in cyberspace - as they do everywhere else, I guess.

Liane Spicer said...

Chris, absolutely. I think the Internet engenders a false sense of security so the malice is more startling when it occurs.

Liane Spicer said...

Jewel, Amazon has a system for reporting reviews that are for the wrong product or that contain factual errors like the one you mention. I know several authors who have succeeded in getting reviews like that removed.

I've seen far too many reviews by people who haven't bought or used the product, have bought it but haven't received it yet, left feedback about the shipper instead of the product, are promoting a rival product, or whose book reviews give away the whole plot. I've even seen customers leave a 1-star 'review' in which they ask for product information for something they want to buy. Ridiculous.