I’ve already written about the way in which Amazon reviews of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy were distorted by a debate over ebook pricing. Now it seems that Amazon reviews are being used as part of a political debate regarding male circumcision. PRNewser reports that some reviews for Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin’s Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It have blasted the book’s apparent support for male circumcision as a means of preventing the spread of HIV.
Timberg and Halperin’s book has been generally well-received by critics and currently has a 3.5 star average on Amazon from 78 reviews. However, a quick look at the reviews breakdown shows a dramatic split, with 38 reviews being 5-star and 28 being 1-star, and only 12 being anywhere inbetween. The title seems to have run afoul of a vocal group who are vehemently opposed to male circumcision.
To be clear: the book isn’t about circumcision, merely raising instead the idea that this practice can help to cut HIV transmission rates. There seems to be some solid science backing up that idea, although I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on the subject myself. Anyway, the upshot is that the book has suffered a number of one-star reviews that focus on the circumcision aspect. In other words, it seems to be the message of one part of the book that is severely distorting the overall reviews system. Is that unfair, or is it simply a sign of people being passionate about the subject?
Tinderbox certainly isn’t the only book to suffer in this way. Take a look, for example, at Believe in America: Mitt Romney’s Plan For Jobs and Economic Growth, and you’ll see similar polarisation of opinion. Perhaps these reviewers aren’t being entirely objective, but then subjectivity is also worthwhile. What’s important, I’d argue, is for readers to understand how these review systems work. Most people could look at the reviews for either of the title mentioned here and instantly understand that people with passionate views (on both sides of the argument) are leaving comments. No system is perfect, so it’s up to readers to be smart enough to do more than just look at the star average.
In fact, I wonder if these debates might actually help a book. As a reader, I take into account not only the average star rating that a book’s received, but also the number of reviews in total. If the number of high, that suggests to me that the book is being widely read and is probably not a fringe item. If you really base your purchasing decisions on a simple star average, then you deserve what you end up with.
The PRNewser article reports that the book’s authors claim they’ve seen a tangible sales hit as a result of the reviews. However, the article doesn’t really make the case that this is a targeted or coordinated attack on the book. There are clearly some controversial topics contained within the book, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing that these have started a debate. In an ideal world, perhaps reviewers on Amazon would be able to distance themselves emotionally from ‘hot button’ topics and would give a more objective review, but that’s really not how Amazon works. Expect this kind of thing to happen more and more often, and for Amazon to probably require verified purchases for book reviews in the near future.