Political Animal


October 07, 2012 3:24 PM The Corruption of Crowds

By Simon van Zuylen-Wood

I’m not fond of the notion that the “crowds” are inherently “wise.” Sure, InTrade works pretty well. But that only tells us that crowds are pretty good at predicting binary outcomes like election results. For much else, I’m willing to ignore the crowds. That we should receive restaurant recommendations from Yelp! or get our book reviews from Amazon commenters is anathema to seeking out reliable criticism. Democracy works in politics because a state has a responsibility to all its citizens; it fails in criticism because art and fine dining and music have a responsibility only to themselves. Put another way, there’s usually a difference between “crowd-pleaser” and “critical success.”

But there’s also another problem with the “wisdom of crowds”: The crowds can be bought. While a single reviewer will lose credibility if it emerges that he is flacking for someone (see Armstrong Williams and No Child Left Behind), there’s no telling who among our citizen critics is for real.

Take Seth Stevenson’s amusing Slate piece from this week, in which he revealed that he had bought upwards of 25,000 Twitter followers from a dealer. While it’s unclear that the public ranks journalists by their Klout scores, potential employers certainly do. A reporter’s ability to reach readers and corral them back to a publication’s website can make or break a job application. But as sites like BuzzFeed and TMZ testify, the ability to drive content is not necessarily a measure of quality journalism.

Stevenson’s stunt was admittedly rather benign, but there are shadier tricks being played. In August the New York Times reported on the kingpin of Amazon’s review-selling business, Todd Rutherford. At his empire’s height, Rutherford was taking in $28,000 a month to write glowing five-star book reviews for random authors whose books he had barely read. It turns out Rutherford wasn’t alone.

“The wheels of online commerce run on positive reviews,” said Bing Liu, a data-mining expert at the University of Illinois, Chicago, whose 2008 research showed that 60 percent of the millions of product reviews on Amazon are five stars and an additional 20 percent are four stars. “But almost no one wants to write five-star reviews, so many of them have to be created.”

The author goes on:

Mr. Liu estimates that about one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake. Yet it is all but impossible to tell when reviews were written by the marketers or retailers (or by the authors themselves under pseudonyms), by customers (who might get a deal from a merchant for giving a good score) or by a hired third-party service.

Given our reliance upon social networking for the sharing of information, combined with our increasingly unwillingness to pay for things, this news shouldn’t come as a surprise. Indeed, Jennifer Egan already anticipated the darker side of social media in her 2010 novel A Visit From the Goon Squad. At the novel’s climax, a PR specialist makes a concert go viral by paying someone to hype it, using a social media tool called a “parrot.” If “reach” and “virality” are the coins of the information age realm, palms will inevitable be greased, and crowd-sourcing may lose whatever democratic appeal it had.

Now, please “like” this post.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.


  • c u n d gulag on October 07, 2012 3:52 PM:

    How pathetic is it, that people can "buy" followers.

    On the other hand, why can't I GET IN ON THIS RACKET?!?!

    I'm at least as stupid, insipid, and vapid, as these people!

    How many of you people out there in WaMo-land would pay me for my word-turds?

    I need to know!
    'Cause if I can make some money, maybe I can leave the ranks of the long-term unemployed!

  • Matt on October 07, 2012 3:55 PM:

    Egan's book was A Visit from the Goon Squad. A visit from the Good Squad sounds delightful, but maybe not so gripping.

  • paul on October 07, 2012 4:19 PM:

    Pretty much all the things that work with volunteer/free labor of one kind or another only work until it's worth someone's while to pervert the process. Wikipedia ditto. Restaurant reviews, product reviews in magazines back in the days when such things were big...

  • exlibra on October 07, 2012 4:22 PM:

    [...] this news shouldn’t come as a surprise. -- Simon van Zuylen-Wood

    Rest assured; it doesn't. I stopped trusting Amazon's (and other sites) "patron reviews" long ago. Probably after the first couple of times I checked them out. For a while longer I trusted their 1- and 2-star reviews -- especially the more specific ones -- a bit more, but, eventually, I gave up on those, too. If I personally know and respect someone and trust their judgement in general, I might take their advice, or, at the very least, consider it. Otherwise, not.

  • mmm on October 07, 2012 4:29 PM:

    Believe me, c u n d, whenever this blog goes with thumbs up and down, there will be plenty of people who will give you the finger (hopefully up!).

  • John on October 07, 2012 8:30 PM:

    It I curious that critically acclaimed books or movies are poorly patronized and panned movies and such are financially successful. The tastes and interests of the experts and critics don't always overlap with those of the crowd.

  • schtick on October 07, 2012 8:51 PM:

    The best reviews I can get on the internet for anything is to read the bad ones. Best of all is "company"sucks.com. I get all kinds of great reviews to ponder before I choose to purchase said product.
    It worked so well for insurance companies that a couple people had their accounts hacked and all information wiped. I'm willing to bet it wasn't an accident.

  • c00p on October 07, 2012 9:31 PM:

    A dip into Roman imperial history is also eye-opening for those who want to contemplate the way crowds (and the army) can be manipulated as well as manipulate.

  • Rick B on October 07, 2012 9:50 PM:

    @c u n d gulag

    Tell me, C U N D, are you really willing to sacrifice your own morals and give up tiring to understand what is going on in society just to screw others over and take from them money your don't deserve? Is your personal goal in life to sacrifice those things that matter to you to try to climb the slippery ladders of power and social acclaim? And, as you are doing, bury your own moral qualms and feelings of fellowship with others who are not as successful at those endeavors as you are?

    Because if you were such a person, you wouldn't be continually posting the most insightful comments on this blog. Which you are, I promise. Unfortunately the capitalist system does not translate my respect and admiration for what you have written here into the economic gain you covet (but don't consider important enough to sacrifice your soul to obtain.)

    The best you will get at this rate is my admiration and compliments. I have no doubts that I write for many of us. Sorry you can't cash such compliments at the bank. But thank you - thank you - thank you - thank you - for the many insights and revelations you have shared with me here.

    Don't stop.

    But you are already too wise and capable to not understand this. I recognize the tongue in cheek with which you wrote the comment. But this gives me the chance to do what in Spanish is called "echar flores" to one well deserving of it. Thank you for your many, many insights.

  • buddy66 on October 07, 2012 10:14 PM:


  • AgentX on October 07, 2012 11:58 PM:

    The 'wisdom of crowds' can be useful when performing massive scale science experiments. Take Galaxy Zoo and Planethunters, for example. Instead of 1 highly trained person looking thru millions of graphs and photos, you get thousands of slightly trained people looking at those millions of graphs and photos. The lead scientists don't fully trust 100% of an involved person's observation 100% of the time; the key is when 5 or more people report the same thing from the same piece of data. That tells the scientists to take a look at that piece of data and see if something is really there or not.

    So while it ain't working well for reviews, it seems to work well for science.

  • c u n d gulag on October 08, 2012 8:13 AM:

    Yes - tongue was firmly in cheek! :-)

    Thanks for letting me troll for compliments. ;-)

  • AS on October 08, 2012 10:55 AM:

    Tis article seems to dovetail with this one, recently published in Science News: