December 31, 2012
Amazon has reportedly modified its rules governing book reviews posted on its site. Under the new rules, book authors are prohibited from posting reviews of books in the genres in which they write. Amazon’s action illustrates the difficulties associated with effective management of conduct in online communities.
Amazon faced multiple challenges to the integrity of its online book review material. One problem was associated with authors using different names to post positive reviews of their own books. Another issue involved authors using pseudonyms while providing negative reviews of books written by their competitors.
By secretly supporting their own work and criticizing the works of others, a few authors were misleading book buyers. That practice, although extremely limited, undermined consumer confidence in the online reviews.
Amazon’s response to the problems is a general ban on reviews written by authors regarding books in their own genres. Thus apparently a novelist will be prohibited from writing reviews of novels written by other authors, for example.
Amazon’s desire to protect the integrity of the book reviews is understandable and appropriate. Its approach to managing the problem appears, however, to be overly intrusive.
Objections have been raised against the new ban. Some observers, for example, argue that authors in a genre are frequently the most effective book reviewers as a result of their experience and expertise in the field.
Instead of a general ban on author reviews of books in their own genres, enforcement of other conduct rules could be more appropriate. For example, Amazon has the authority to exclude members of its community who mislead consumers, and that power could provide Amazon with adequate recourse against fraudulent reviewers.
Alternatively, Amazon could require all book reviewers to post under their real names. Failure to do so could result in a ban against future reviews from the reviewer in question.
Amazon is justified in acting to protect the integrity of the opinions expressed in its online community. Its course of action is, however, problematic.
Amazon and all other managers of online communities face an important and difficult challenge. They must create and enforce effective rules of conduct in order to keep their online communities attractive to users.
The efforts of these online communities to police conduct illustrate the increasing significance of the contractual relationships between consumers and those communities. In many instances, the rules of conduct governing online communities have greater immediate impact on consumers than formal laws and regulations.
As managers of online communities continue to develop and modify online conduct rules, they should always attempt to make those rules as balanced as possible, and to minimize their intrusive impact on individuals. Broad prohibitions such as the Amazon restrictions on author reviews should be avoided whenever possible.