As in any numbers game (tax returns, elections) opacity abets manipulation. Amazon's rankings establish a formal, public competition for power—or its online equivalent, recognition—wherein each competitor follows his own private sense of fair play. Or not. On the tongue-in-cheek Harriet Klausner Appreciation Society blog, I found allegations that Grady Harp's 92,000 "helpful votes" are the product of collusion—that Amazon reviewers often strike e-mail bargains to "yes" one another's reviews. Klausner herself told the New York Times in 2004 of a conspiracy to unseat her. Though Amazon officials assured me that they do their best to "weed out" loyalty votes when calculating the reviewer standings, recent software innovations seem to come down on the side of the weeds. A social-networking feature allows a reviewer to identify hundreds of other reviewers as "friends"; an RSS option lets them track his feedback in real-time. Certainly, Harp has been generous to his Amazon "friends," among whom are authors he has reviewed and others for whose self-published books he has provided jacket copy. ("A book that is well worth the attention of our weary state in America today."—Grady Harp, Amazon.com.) The watchdogs of HKAS point to Harp's staggering vote total—a tally surpassed only by Klausner's—as evidence that this generosity has been repaid.
Given Amazon's lack of greater transparency, it's hard to judge the merits of the vote-swapping claims. What is clear is the corruptibility of democracy, Web 2.0-style. Then again, from a shareholder's perspective, the fact that anyone cares may indicate the rankings' success. Qualitative research affirms that "books with more and better reviews sell better," according to Cornell sociologists Shay David and Dr. Trevor Pinch, co-authors of a 2006 analysis of online recommendation systems. To the extent that competitive energies drive Top Reviewers and their nemeses to generate content, and to spend time on and publicize Amazon.com, the chief beneficiary of misuse of Amazon's rankings system is Amazon itself.
This is not to say that a Top 10 ranking doesn't come with some sub rosa incentives for the reviewer. Free books, first and foremost; in an e-mail, Grady Harp told me he was "inundated with books from new writers and from publishers who know I love to read first works." This fall, when it invited select Top Reviewers to join its Vine program—an initiative, still in beta-testing, to generate content about new and prerelease products—Amazon extended the range of perks. "Vine Voices" like Mitchell and Harp can elect to receive items ranging from electronics to appliances to laundry soap. As long as they keep reviewing the products, Amazon's suppliers will keep sending them.
However, by refashioning Web 2.0 as a proprietary marketplace, Amazon's reviewer rankings subject enthusiasts like Grady Harp to the same pressures that confront the professionals they were supposed to replace. To keep writing, lest another reviewer usurp one's spot. To say something nice, in hopes that someone will say something nice about you. And to read for work, rather than for pleasure. "I have a tall stack of books staring at me," Harp wrote, in a wistful moment.
"At times this sense of obligation prevents me from having time to read the things I personally want to read—the works of McEwan, Toibin, Crace, White, Bolaño, Sebald ..."
Like celebrity bloggers and Wikipedia "Gnomes," then, the Top Amazon Reviewer heralds the arrival of a curious hybrid: part customer, part employee. This feels like a loss. But perhaps it means that in the coming age, every writer will be a salesman: up past dark, sifting through the data stream for evidence that somewhere, some honest soul is buying.