Sunday, April 25, 2010

You are not a Gadget - Jaron Lanier

The Perils of Anonymous Posting:

Last week a very timely case shook British academia when a noted British historian was accused of posting nasty reviews of his colleagues' books anonymously on

Oddly enough, he signed the posts with his first name and the name of his college where he works, which one tends to believe would impede his anonymity. Also, his negative reviews were relatively mild (in my personal opinion), such as asking why someone had written the book. However, one of his colleges hired a forensic investigator and traced years of negative reviews back to historian Orlando Figes. Figes first claimed that his wife had written the reviews, then admitted that he had done so.

This incident ties in beautifully with Lanier's contention that the anonymity of the web encourages the darker side of humans to emerge. Figes, a historian, could be expected to do his best to attribute his ideas to the proper sources. He would also be well aware of the dangers of anonymous accusations (look at the fates of people anonymously accused in Venice, Europe during the Inquisition, pre-WW II Europe). However, when faced with the ability to post anonymously on (arguably) the world's biggest online bookstore, he decided to savage his fellow historians.

When I mentioned this incident to a fellow librarian, she told me that authors can actually delete negative reviews from Amazon. In fact, she had written a negative review of a book and had it deleted. As a result, she was very suspicious of books that had only positive reviews on Amazon. While I do look at Amazon reviews, I generally also try to look at a book, either by looking through a physical copy or by the virtual look ability to look inside a book. I take all reviews with a grain of salt, even by reviewers in respected journals.

My questions are these:

Reviews on moderated sites can be as biased as those on unmoderated sites. Should we really allow reviews to determine what we read or watch?

Are internet reviews by anonymous posters really any worse or less legit than those in print publications? Do reviewers in print publications has less of an agenda when they write reviews? Or do they just have better editors and legal departments?

If the internet did not exist, would Figes have written negative (and signed) reviews for academic journals? Did the internet indeed encourage his negative behavior?


Anonymous said...

Sometimes mediocre or low quality writing/thinking is not criticised by colleagues because of the negative consequences it will have on their relationship. But the freedom of being anonymous while expressing one's critical side should have its place in the scheme of things, if things have to evolve for the better. Look at organised religion and partisan politics...Continuation of narcissism by all sorts of means and media...Superstitious and narcissistic behaviour have flourished across the board because critical thinkers are mostly are afraid to express their sometimes valid views. Have the courage to call spade a spade I say, sometimes anonymously...

Tracey said...

You might be interested in this article and its comments by one of the historians criticized by Figes. The commenters have some interesting views on the validity of Amazon postings:

Oscar W. said...

I think that everyone has to practice critical thinking and consider that someone might not have pure motives in posting an anonymous review, whether it is positive or negative. One has to think through the chain of reasoning or triangulate an opinion by viewing others. It is always possible that a malignant personality would take the time to sway opinion by inventing multiple positive or negative opinions to sway people's minds. Hopefully, that doesn't happen too often.