Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Obama Effect

Way back in December 2009, I wrote a post called It's Good to Be The King.  The post was about Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech (the concept was hilarious at the time, and it's only gotten funnier since) -- in which Obama took a bow because, as he put it, "I prohibited torture."  I said:

This paragraph is pleasant on the surface, and poisonous underneath. Obama has no more power to prohibit torture than Bush had to permit it. Torture is illegal in America. The law, not the president, is what prohibits torture. What would you make of it if the president said, "That is why I prohibited murder. That is why I prohibited rape. That is why I prohibited embezzlement, and mail fraud, and tax evasion."

And today we have the exciting and completely unsurprising news that what President A unilaterally prohibits, President B might unilaterally permit:

Mr. Romney's advisers have privately urged him to "rescind and replace President Obama's executive order" and permit secret "enhanced interrogation techniques against high-value detainees that are safe, legal and effective in generating intelligence to save American lives," according to an internal Romney campaign memorandum.

(By the way, you really have to admire all the Orwellian verbiage in that memo.  Did the Romney people suspect it might leak?  Or is the bullshit primarily intended for internal consumption?)

As the Times article puts it, "the future of American government practices when interrogating high-level terrorism suspects appears likely to turn on the outcome of the presidential election."  Indeed, and I don't know why so many people have so much trouble understanding this.  If you support a power in the hands of a President Obama, you are supporting it too in the hands of a President Romney, or Bachmann, or Palin.  If you support such a power in the hands of a President Bush, you are supporting it too in the hands of a President Hillary Clinton, or Pelosi, etc.  Arguing the power lawfully belongs with one president but not with another is the mentality of a subject, not of a citizen.

Increasingly in a country where, as Thomas Paine put it, "the law is king," the law is less than an afterthought -- it's simply irrelevant.  This trend is not new, but it's worsened under Obama, whose great legacy will be the conversion of what was formally seen as radical, illegal, unconstitutional behavior (by liberals, anyway, and however disingenuously) into mere policy differences partisans will cheer or decry depending solely on which party currently occupies the White House.  We can call this The Obama Effect.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been, A Sock Puppet?

Updated Below

Last week, I wrote a post ("And Why Beholdest Thou The Mote In Thy Brother's Eye…?") about No Sock Puppets Here Please ("NSPHP"), a website established by a group of novelists in reaction to recent revelations of purchased reviews and sock puppetry in the online customer review system.  In my post, I criticized NSPHP for its shoddy execution.  And now, having thought further about purchased reviews, sock puppetry, and the online customer review system, I've concluded that not only was NSPHP poorly executed, it was also mistakenly conceived.

The argument against purchased reviews and sock puppetry, as I understand it, goes more or less like this:

  1. If customers learn that deception is part of the online customer review system, they will lose trust in the system.
  2. If they lose trust in the system, they will stop using the system, or at least use it much less.
  3. If they stop using the system, everyone suffers.

Of these three premises, the only one I can easily accept is the third.  I think online customer reviews have been a huge boon to authors and readers, so yes, if material numbers of customers ceased or diminished their use of the system, I agree it would be unfortunate.  But the third premise depends on the first two, so we ought to examine those.

The first premise is, if customers learn that deception is part of the online customer review system, they will lose trust in that system.

I've done no studies and have nothing to go on here other than my own experience and anecdotal evidence, but I find it hard to imagine that customers don't already realize deception is part of the online customer review system.  Have a look at almost any book -- any product, for that matter -- on Amazon's website, and you'll find some fairly dodgy-looking reviews.  One-star reviews that are vicious, unbalanced, and devoid of any supporting evidence; five-star reviews so over-the-top they sound prepared to start a new religion about the underlying product.  And who hasn't seen a one-star review proudly declaring that the reviewer hasn't even read the book in question, or a five-star review for a product the customer hasn't even taken out of the box yet but is happy over because it was promptly shipped?  So customers must realize, I think, that people leave reviews for all sorts of reasons, many of a type reasonable people would probably agree are unworthy, including the desire to deceive.

And even if customers who hear of purchased reviews and sock puppetry do suddenly come to newly doubt the reliability of the system, how would that doubt manifest itself? A customer who learns that authors are leaving five-star reviews for themselves and one-star reviews for others would, presumably, assign less weight to both, in which case the "damage" caused by the revelations would more or less cancel itself out.  Customers would simply come to look askance at all extreme reviews, positive as well as negative.

But what seems more likely is that, customers already know the online review system is hardly populated by nothing other than disinterested, dispassionate, honest people carefully sifting and weighing evidence before delivering wise and inherently trustworthy judgments.  Customers realize there are many such people writing reviews, but know, too, that there are plenty of scurrilous ones, as well.

If I'm right about what I just wrote, it follows that recent revelations of deceptive practices by authors didn't reveal anything that wasn't already generally known, or at least strongly suspected.  I don't think it follows that anyone ought to be complacent, but the notion that pre-revelation, customers were trusting, and that post-revelation, their trust has somehow been materially damaged, is possibly a bit of a stretch.

Now let's examine the second premise:  If customers lose trust in the online customer review system, they will stop using, or at least use it much less.

I guess this would be true if customers lost all trust.  But take marriage.  An age-old institution that's been pervaded by cheating since probably moments after its inception.  Everyone knows there is cheating within the institution of marriage.  That there always has been cheating, and always will be.  And they react… how?  By refusing to get married? Or do they continue to make beneficial use of the system?

Now this isn't to say we should be sanguine about adultery, or that adultery is admirable.  But what would you say if, in response to revelations that, say, married actors sometimes get visitors in their trailers while on set and that those visitors are not their spouses, a bunch of married people created a website denouncing adultery and beseeching other people to sign their names and enter into monogamous marriages to "drown out the phony voices" and "marginalize to the point of irrelevance" the bad marriages and to "help us clean up this mess?"  I don't know about you, but I'd think that, important as marital fidelity doubtless is, the new website was perhaps a bit of an overreaction.

So imagine an average customer who's familiar with and relies on an online retailer's review system, and who reads somewhere that a bunch of authors got caught buying reviews and using sock puppets to post reviews.  At which point, our average customer does… what, exactly?  Stops relying on customer reviews generally?  Abandons e-commerce entirely?

This strikes me as a huge leap.  I think it's much more likely the average customer will simply modify her approach to using the system.  Maybe she'll get a bit more wary of extreme-sounding reviews (assuming she isn't wary already, and I wouldn't make that assumption).  Maybe she'll start weighting reviews left by Real Names more heavily than others.  Maybe she'll check on how many helpful votes, and what percentage of helpful votes, a reviewer has received.  But to suggest that our average customer will simply abandon, or significantly diminish her use of, the customer review system overlooks how motivated most customers are to use the system.  I see little evidence for such a proposition.  And I can easily imagine that such a customer, who learns by experience how to make better use of the system, could easily become more reliant on, and a more frequent user, of such a system.  All of which leaves me thinking that whatever systemic damage might have been caused by the recent purchased review and sock puppetry allegations is likely to be marginal at best and more likely non-existent.  

So overall, my sense is that customer reviews systems are probably a lot like the Internet itself:  resilient, adaptable, and enticing enough to motivate people to make frequent use of them despite inherent and perhaps even unaddressable imperfections.

I can't help wondering:  in their rush to take NSPHP live, did its authors, in all their internal discussions and deliberations, ever once even ask, let alone consider, this one, simple question:

"How much systemic damage are purchased reviews and sock puppet reviews really causing?"

Of course I don't know.  But I suspect they did not.  The document is devoid of evidence and argument, relying instead only on an unsupported conclusion that purchased reviews and sock puppet reviews are "damaging to publishing at large."  Damaging why?  Because "the health of this exciting new ecosystem depends entirely on free and honest conversation among readers," which, if you pause to think about it for a moment (and I wish the architects of NSPHP had), you realize is absurd.  First, because it's silly jargon (just what is a "free and honest conversation among readers," anyway?).  Second, because whatever kind of "conversation" readers have been engaging in online, it already is free -- in fact, given the many recent calls I've seen for Amazon to crack down on sock puppetry and other forms of deception with new restrictions on reviewing, it seems like the NSPHP crowd finds that online customer conversations ought to be less free, not more.  And third, because as I argue above, whatever kind of "conversation" readers have been having online, it has never been entirely honest, or even close -- and yet the online customer review system continues to thrive.

(As I argued in my previous post, I still think malicious sock puppet reviews, as opposed to self-praising ones, are particularly worthy of censure because both their intent and likely effect is harm to an individual author.  But the more I consider it, the more I think that even malicious sock puppeteers are more pathetic than pernicious.  What's I find distasteful about them isn't so much that they want to harm someone's sales -- that's one of the motives behind every one of the millions of one-star online reviews -- but rather that they seek to cause that harm while protecting themselves from any potential repercussions.  They themselves enjoy the advantages of author comity, while using that comity as a cover from which to attack.  In other words, these people are not just malicious, but cowardly, too.  But damaging to the system overall?  For the reasons I've argued above, that strikes me as a bit of a stretch.)

Given all this, NSPHP strikes me as a significant overreaction.  I'm glad there's such a thing as chemotherapy, but I wouldn't want to use it to treat a cold.

* * * * *

I know at least some of NSPHP's architects have read my original post, and have a feeling at least some will be reading this one, as well.  I hope you'll all consider the points I make here, and particularly my question about whether any of you discussed, or even considered, the question of how much systemic damage is actually likely to be caused by recent revelations of purchased reviews and sock puppet reviews -- and, if you didn't discuss or consider, what might have led to such a critical omission of inquiry.

After reading my previous post criticizing NSPHP's execution, and this one criticizing NSPHP's conception, I would hope some of the website's architects might regret their rush to action, and I suspect some of them do.  And yet I doubt any of them will withdraw their names from NSPHP's front page, or even simply acknowledge that their premises and conclusions were in error; the actions that followed, misguided and disproportionate.

This kind of stubbornness, while regrettable, is also common.  Because once we've acted, our natural desire to justify our actions, to seem consistent, and to "win" in the face of criticism all conspire to make us commit ourselves ever more deeply to the original mistake.  It was easy for me to withdraw my name from NSPHP:  I had committed none of my personal prestige to the site, and in fact argued publicly that it was a very tough call whether to sign in the comments section at all.  But if you are one of the architects of the thing; one of the original signatories; one of the people whose names appear not just in the comments, but on the front page, too; one of the people who have been reaching out to media -- and not without success -- to try to get NSPHP more attention… it is going to be difficult indeed to admit now that the whole thing was misbegotten, and to publicly own up to your error.  The admission would be tantamount to saying, "I held myself up as a leader among writers, and it turns out I was deserving of neither the position nor of the psychic pleasure I derived from it.  My judgment and my reasoning were unsound, and I got carried away on a tide of foolish emotions, most of which I wasn't even particularly aware of at the time.  Like so many people in so many situations before me, I was in the grip of Moral Panic."

Find me someone who can cop to that, and I'll find you someone worthy of admiration, emulation, and a deserved mantle of leadership.  But such people are rare.  And this is one of the reasons it's important to think before acting -- unless you have cast-iron integrity and are unusually self-aware, when you act in haste and repent at leisure, the dynamic that typically ensues insidiously beguiles you into doubling down on a mistake.

* * * * *

Joe Konrath has expressed his views that NSPHP is a kind of witch hunt, and I think he's right -- a conclusion I've reached not just after considering the site itself, but also from watching the behavior of various NSPHP architects.  Two days ago, David Hewson, one of the architects and spokespeople of NSPHP, tweeted in regard to sock puppeteering:

To which I offered:

I think the meaning of my tweets was pretty clear and I don't think they were insulting (certainly they weren't intended as such).  So I was surprised at the response (sorry, no more embeds, having trouble getting them in here consistently... obviously, I need to find a better way to do this.  But you can follow the discussion on David's and my twitter pages, too, if you like):

DH:  Are you the friend then Barry? You OK with it too?
BE:  So your Moral Compass App is indeed only needed by others and not by you?
DH:  I think it's needed by someone who thinks lying to the public is wrong. Don't you?
DH:  Oops... by anyone who thinks lying to the public ISN'T wrong. Sorry. Early here.
DH:  And I'm quite happy to have my actions judged - that's what you and Joe have been doing all along, haven't you?
BE:  That's twice you haven't answered my simple question, David. I didn't mean it to be this big a deal, just food for thought.
DH:  Twice you haven't answered my question too. Of course I need to look to my own moral compass. Everyone does. I don't…
DH:  think I'm right all the time. But when it comes to condemning lies I don't think it's hard to find a 'moral' position
DH:  So are you the friend Konrath speaks of? Do you agree with his statement there?
BE:  Those are interesting questions, and yes, you have now asked twice. I'll blog about it tomorrow--grateful if you'd link to it.
So... in response to a question about how the guardians of morality will guard their own morality, David twice demanded to know whether I'm friends with someone he disapproves of, whether I discussed something with that person that went into a blog post, and whether I agree with that person's thinking.  In response to my original question, this isn't just a non sequitur.  It isn't just weird (Joe's post began, I had a long talk with a friend last night, and we realized something obvious.  Amazon allows one star reviews.  In other words, the existing system allows and encourages people to publicly trash books.  Honestly, who cares who he was talking to about this?  What could it possibly be relevant to?)  It's also exactly the kind of witch-hunt reflex that's part of what's been making me twitchy about the NSPHP project from the beginning.  It made me think of:

  • Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, and how Miller himself was convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to identify others present at meetings he had attended.

  • Most of all, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the concept of Thought Crime.

So David's question struck me telling, and worthy of comment.  I'm a lot less concerned about a sock puppet than I am about an inquisition.  The former might damage commerce.  The latter will damage freedom.  One might think artists in particular would be sensitive about such matters.  Apparently, one might be mistaken.

Now, of course a bunch of overreacting writers isn't capable of the kind of harm caused by religious edicts and government committees and actual mobs.  And I understand it's hard for all of us to get outside our own heads and see ourselves with a little more objectivity (see, for example, We do not torture).  But to me, as I've previously noted, there's more than a whiff of the mob mentality about NSPHP, so it was disappointing to ask what I think is a legitimate question about who will guard the guardians and to get a response that was, in effect, "Denounce the Evildoer Konrath!"

David, if after reading this post you still think that under the circumstances your inquiry about whether I'm the friend Joe mentioned talking to before he wrote his blog post, and whether I share some of his views, is a worthy one, please ask it again in the comments to this post and I'll respond to it in an update.  But I hope you'll realize the unfortunate direction you were heading in and retract the question instead.

* * * * *

A last thought.

The topic of deception in the online customer review system seems to have produced a fair amount of strife among authors, as has the topic of self-publishing vs legacy publishing vs Amazon publishing (actually, I don't think it's a vs situation at all; I think it's wonderful that authors now have real choices, and I encourage all authors to find the mix that's best for them.  But I digress).  Much about publishing that for a long time was taken for granted is changing, and changing rapidly.  It can be confusing and even frightening, and it's understandable that sometimes tempers get short, words are chosen poorly, the benefit of the doubt is withdrawn and the worst quickly assumed.  I've seen some really ugly, petty comments being made about fellow authors, and I know the explanation -- or rationalization -- behind the comments is some version of, "He started it!" or "He deserved it!"

Readers of this blog know I've posted again and again to speak out against torture.  Frequently when I do, someone will respond in the comments with some version of, "But al Qaeda flew planes into buildings and murdered nearly 3000 people!" or "But Khalid Sheikh Mohammed decapitated Daniel Pearl!" or "Do you remember what it was like to watch those people who had to jump to their deaths to avoid being burned alive?"

My response is always the same.  I don't think we Americans ought to base our own system of morality, and our own behavior, on what al Qaeda does or doesn't do.  We're Americans.  We don't do what's right because of what our enemies do.  We do it because it's right.  We don't torture only if al Qaeda doesn't torture.  We don't torture because we're Americans.

On a personal level, what this principle means for me is that whether someone insults me is nearly irrelevant to the issue of whether I should insult him.  If I believe insults are counterproductive -- particularly from the standpoint of persuasion, which to me is the primary legitimate purpose of argument -- then I have to eschew them regardless of whether other people find them hard to resist.  It's that Kantian thing again (David, that was for you. ;)).  Or call it the Golden Rule, if you like.  The point is this:  if you think insults, pettiness, and vindictiveness ought to be avoided, then you ought to avoid them.  Lately, even more so than usual, I see people not only failing to avoid that kind of bad behavior, but eagerly embracing it.  For anyone who believes we should be the change we want to see in the world, this is not just a loss for society -- it's also a personal failure.

Moreover, it's personally corrosive.  From time to time, I've been on the receiving end of some fairly hateful stuff here on the interwebs, and if I let myself get worked up in response, my ego would engage.  It would become important for me to "win" the fight, to hurt the other person back, and suddenly what should be really important to me -- persuasion -- would be not only relegated to the back seat, but smothered back there, too.  Meanwhile, I know my judgement would be occluded.  Rather than keeping an open mind, I would actively seek reasons to hate the person who insulted me, I would screen out evidence that he or she might be other than entirely unworthy, and I would get locked in a cycle where my insults produce more anger, leading to more insults, leading to more anger… etc.

Even if you haven't clicked on any other links in this post, click on and consider this one:  Fundamental Attribution Error.

The good news is, whether you get caught up in the negative emotions, and in the behavior they cause and that then reinforces them, isn't up to anyone else.  It's only up to you.  But it's important to realize the best way to avoid getting lost in the hate thickets is to avoid stepping onto that path in the first place.  Because anger, hate, and self-righteousness can quickly become both their own motivation and their own reward.

If any of this resonates personally for anyone still reading this far, I recommend having a look at, say, your recent Twitter feed.  Do your posts hate the sin but not the sinner?  Are they intended to persuade, or is there some other, less worthy motivation behind them?  Are you proud of what you've been saying, or, in retrospect, a little embarrassed by it because it seems beneath you?

What's that saying?  "Be the person your dog thinks you are."

I know many people will be unpersuaded by what I've written here (for many reasons, including the kind of insidious resistance caused by mistakenly committing to something like NSPHP in the first place).  Which is okay, obviously.  We don't all have to agree.  But hopefully we can disagree with a little less vitriol -- even if we think the other person is directing vitriol at us.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?  I don't know the answer, but I think we have to at least start by trying a little harder to guard ourselves.


Well, perhaps predictably, David Hewson posted a comment in which he did indeed attempt to interrogate me for a third time:

[Joe Konrath] says in public he talked to a friend and afterwards wrote, 'Buying reviews isn't wrong. Using sock puppets isn't wrong. Leaving fake one star reviews isn't wrong.'

Were you that friend? Do you agree with him that buying reviews, using sock puppets, and leaving fake one-star reviews aren't wrong? It doesn't take 2,000 words of overwritten flim-flam to answer that. So why do you find it so hard?

My response, as promised, with David's comment in italics and mine in plain text (the full exchange is in the comments section):

Joe Konrath, your co-author of so much stuff on this subject…

Joe is my co-author of stuff on sock puppetry, purchased reviews, and NSPHP?

David, could you provide cites -- even just a single cite -- to back up that claim?  And when you can't, will you pause to consider that maybe you're conflating two separate people, perhaps in part because you've become unhealthily obsessed with one of them?

[Joe] says in public he talked to a friend and afterwards wrote, 'Buying reviews isn't wrong. Using sock puppets isn't wrong. Leaving fake one star reviews isn't wrong.'

Were you that friend? Do you agree with him that buying reviews, using sock puppets, and leaving fake one-star reviews aren't wrong? It doesn't take 2,000 words of overwritten flim-flam to answer that. So why do you find it so hard?

I think it's mostly because the way you ask, and the utter lack of self awareness and historical perspective that characterizes your question, makes my skin crawl.

Also, because it's such a bizarre non sequitur in response to a friendly suggestion that you might want to make personal use of your proposed "Moral Compass" app, and not just generously offer it to others.

And finally, I guess, because it pleases me to act in accordance with my own principles.  Because when self-important grandstanders threaten to brand me as Automatically Suspect if I don't jump through their self-pleasuring hoops, it feels like a badge of honor.

I'm sure you'll understand.  After all, you just refused to answer Mr S Puppet's questions in keeping with some principle of you're own -- presumably the principle that you will not have a substantive discussion with a stranger on the Internet unless he first presents you with a Long Form Birth Certificate, or something like that.

Anyway, I can't think of anything better than your own behavior -- here, on Twitter, and at NSPHP itself -- to elegantly support my contention that NSPHP is by default, if not design, congenitally inclined to witch hunt.  Of course we won't see eye to eye on that, but I'm sure we'll also both be satisfied that readers now have ample evidence by with they can consider and judge for themselves.

Updated Again:

Apologies, David, and everyone else -- I mistakenly attributed Gordon's response to Mr S Puppet in the comments to David.  So the penultimate paragraph (or some version of it) in the update above should have been addressed to Gordon, not David.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

And Why Beholdest Thou The Mote In Thy Brother's Eye...?

*Updated Below*

In response to recent revelations of novelists buying Amazon reviews and creating sock puppet accounts to praise their own books and trash those of others, a group of writers has come together to post a message -- No Sock Puppets Here Please ("NSPHP") -- condemning these practices, urging other writers not to engage in them, inviting readers to "take possession of the process," and asking "anybody who loves books" to sign the document, too.  I had my own idea for a voluntary code of conduct regarding purchased reviews and sock puppets a few days ago, and overall I'm glad to see that others have thought of, and have adopted, their own approach.  After a lot of consideration, I've decided to add my name (I don't flatter myself that my name would make much difference one way or the other, but still, it's my name) to the message these other writers have posted.  But I did so with reservations, and I'd like to talk about those reservations here.

My first reservation about NSPHP is that it names three recent authors who, to varying degrees, have outed themselves or have been outed engaging in the practices NSPHP addresses (purchasing reviews; self-praising sock puppets; sock puppets attacking third parties).  This made me uncomfortable.  After all, the problem isn't specifically RJ Ellory, Stephen Leather, and John Locke -- the named authors.  These three are just recent examples -- and examples of something probably much more widespread (NSPHP itself acknowledges that "Few in publishing believe they are unique," and if these three were likely the only ones, there would be no need for an NSPHP in the first place).  Why make a document, presumably intended to be relevant and read for many years to come, about three specific examples who are primarily notable because they did what they did in 2012?  Historian Orlando Figes was caught using sock puppets to praise his own work and to attack that of his rivals in 2010, but he isn't shamed by name in NSPHP.  It's not that I object to people like Ellory being shamed -- he's been widely, and, in my opinion, deservedly shamed, including here just now -- but is NSPHP supposed to be about shaming individuals, or about articulating the details of an enduring code of conduct designed to guide authors and reassure readers?  If the latter, the former strikes me as unnecessary, unhelpful, and even unseemly.

My second reservation was about this odd, italicized paragraph:

But the only lasting solution is for readers to take possession of the process. The internet belongs to us all. Your honest and heartfelt reviews, good or bad, enthusiastic or disapproving,­ can drown out the phoney voices, and the underhanded tactics will be marginalized to the point of irrelevance. No single author, ­ however devious, ­ can compete with the whole community. Will you use your voice to help us clean up this mess?

It's hard to know what this is.  I don't know what process readers are supposed to take possession of, or what taking possession of a process would mean.  The only way I can make sense of the whole thing is as a request for readers to post more reviews than they have so far.  Because if the current quantity of "honest and heartfelt" reviews is insufficient to "drown out the phoney voices," then "Will you use your voice to help us clean up this mess" can only logically be a request for readers to post more reviews -- and presumably many more, if any meaningful level of additional dilution of dishonest by honest is likely to occur.

This strikes me as… strange.  Is it really proper to try to recruit readers to post reviews as a way of protecting the integrity of the review system?  Maybe.  But I can't help feeling the most honest and disinterested course of action would be to just leave readers alone and let them post whatever they want for whatever reasons they want.  And that in attempting to recruit readers to join this battle -- even if the suggested weapon is itself honest reviews -- the authors of NSPHP have perhaps muddied their own message.

Now, maybe I'm reading this wrong.  But at a minimum, NSPHP seems susceptible of this interpretation, and I wish it weren't.  I wish the document were clearer and more straightforward in pursuit of its purpose, which I think, as noted in the first paragraph, is the protection of "the health of this exciting new [online] ecosystem."  This separate plea to readers seems, again, an odd and confusing way of furthering that end.

My third reservation is about the use of "unreservedly" in the paragraph, "We the undersigned unreservedly condemn this behaviour, and commit never to use such tactics."  As I mentioned above, adding my name to NSPHP wasn't an easy call.  I believe there's a significant difference between buying reviews, on the one hand, and using sock poppets to trash other authors, on the other (more on this below) -- so in addressing these practices without distinction, am I condemning "unreservedly?"  I'm not sure.  I think I'd rather condemn with some explanation, self-reflection, and nuance.  In the end, I decided NSPHP was likely to do more good than harm, and on that basis, decided to sign it.  But still -- adverbs, as Stephen King pointed out in his book On Writing, are not your friend.  I think NSPHP would have been improved by the absence of this one.

My fourth reservation stems from my belief that, for behavior to be ethically wrong, it has to in some meaningful sense harm others.  And while I find many of the alarums regarding the severity of damage to author finances and to the perceived integrity of the customer review system to be overblown, I do think that, in general, revelations that authors are buying reviews can only weaken reader trust in a system that has been a huge boon to authors (and particularly to indie authors).  For this reason alone, I think it's ethically wrong for authors to buy reviews.  Think of it as an author's version of the Kantian Categorical Imperative:  if all authors did it, all authors would suffer, and by this measure, it can't be right to do.

Self-praising sock puppets are, to me, similar.  Minuscule-to-nonexistant harm, extremely diffused at best, to individual authors, but, in light of revelations and suspicions about such behavior, caustic to the system itself.  And if the system suffers, everyone is to some degree harmed.

(I can't help adding just for proportion that I don't think the average online customer is some sort of naif who accepts the veracity of all online reviews with the unquestioning trust of a child believing in Santa Claus.  We're not talking about the first pollutants in a previously pure system, but rather of additional impurities in something already widely understood to contain a fair bit of turbidity.  This isn't grounds for cynicism or complacency, but again, worth mentioning, I think, to suggest some sense of perspective regarding the degree of likely harm.)

Because I think intent matters, I also have to add my sense that review-buying and self-praising-sock-puppet-deploying authors aren't trying to hurt anyone else.  They're only trying to help themselves.  Yes, at least arguably, there is a likelihood of harm regardless of intent, but in criminal law intent matters, and for me it matters here, too.

This is part of why the use of sock puppets to trash other authors is, for me, another story.  I find it disgusting and not just regrettable, but reprehensible.  In addition to its inherent, direct likelihood of harm to the authors against whom it's directed, it is intended to cause harm.  Harm, not just personal advantage, is its purpose.  Plus it's just so gutless.  Even as a novelist I have trouble getting my head around the notion of someone doing this shit and not realizing there is something seriously wrong in his or her psyche.  We all have unworthy urges, but if you actually do things losers do, doesn't that make you a loser?  Then why are you doing them?

So yes, I find all three practices addressed in NSPHP to be worthy of censure, but not in equal measure.  And I would have liked NSPHP to somehow account for the differences as well as the similarities.  Lumping them all together felt to me a bit like posting a message simultaneously condemning, I don't know, embezzlement and murder.  Yes, they're both bad, but I wouldn't want to suggest they're roughly equivalent, either.  Doing so makes embezzlement sound worse and murder, better. 

Speaking of similarities, my first reaction to these revelations was to find them abhorrent -- even the review purchasing, which upon reflection I consider to be the least of the three.  I've never done any of these things; I reassured myself.  Never even been tempted; never would.  Yea me.

But I didn't stop there.  I asked myself, "Well, okay, you haven't done those things… but have you ever done anything like them?"

And the honest answer was… "Well, for the first book (and maybe the second -- it's been a while), I gave out free copies to friends and family and said, 'Hey, if you like it and you feel inclined, don't be shy about posting an Amazon review...'"

Did I ask for a specific kind of review, or a minimum number of stars?  No.  Did I boost my chances by threatening to impose punishments or withhold favors if proper reviews were not forthcoming?  Of course not.  But come on, I knew these people were kindly inclined and motivated to help me.  They weren't obligated, there was no quid pro quo, but wasn't I at least to some extent trying to game the system?

And then I thought about blurbs, a system I believe is irredeemably corrupt.  Now, I give fewer blurbs than most, and, I suspect, more judiciously than many, but still, I'm hardly without sin when it comes to giving and receiving blurbs.

I thought hard about all this, and it wasn't easy for me to logically distinguish the widespread if not universal practices of review trading and blurb trading among authors, on the one hand, from the practice of buying reviews and self-praising sock puppets, on the other (the use of sock puppets to attack third parties, by contrast, was an easy call -- again, harm is the primary purpose and effect).  In the end, I think I did come to some sound conclusions about how these practices differ, but the reflection it took to get there left me feeling not comfortable or relieved, but rather humbled -- like someone who, in recognizing that he himself is not without sin, ought to be cautious about enthusiastically throwing that first stone.

I mentioned the Kantian Categorical Imperative above:  if all authors did it, all authors would suffer, and by this measure, it can't be right to do.  So I asked myself:  with the Categorical Imperative in mind, are blurb and review trading, and other forms of log-rolling and back-scratching, defensible where purchasing reviews and self-praising sock puppets are not?

I couldn't find a distinction.  Well then, I asked, what about deception?  Deception is at the heart of review-buying and sock puppeteering.  And that's what makes those practices bad.  Absent the deception, the review wouldn't work -- or would at least work a lot less well.

True enough, I thought, but it's not like authors include disclaimers on their blurbs:  By the way, Author X is a buddy of mine, and I'm doing this for her not just as a favor, but in hopes that she'll do me a solid in return. And remember, too, gentle reader, that all blurbs help the giver, not just the recipient, because the giver's name gets thousands of ad impressions when it appears for free on someone else's book.

Look, I know you can distinguish these examples, but I also think you'll find the distinctions are often a matter of degree rather than of kind.  It's like asking when "honest graft" becomes real graft, or what the actual difference is.  Maybe more a matter of social acceptance than of real ethical or logical differences.

Still, in the end, I concluded review buying and sock puppeteering were qualitatively worse than publishing "honest graft."  Here's why.

First, a paid-for review is practically a guaranteed review, and while yes, theoretically the review might be honest and thoughtful, in reality in a paid-for system most reviews will be anything but.  It's an explicit cash exchange -- money for services.  This strikes me as worse than implicit barter.  Still, I think you could argue that implicit barter, because it's more subtle, is also more insidious, widespread, and corrupting.

But I think there's another difference between review and blurb trading, on the one hand, and review buying and sock puppeteering, on the other, a difference that has to do with definitional clarity.  Defining what constitutes a bartered-for review or blurb is difficult.  Identifying a straight cash exchange or a fake Amazon account, on the other hand, is pretty easy.  Easier to define means easier to self-regulate and to police.  Now, the definitional difficulty means that bartered-for reviews and blurbs are always going to be part of publishing.  But I don't think it follows that because we can't cost-effectively fix all aspects of publishing, we ought not bother to try to improve any.

A fifth and final reservation about NSPHP.

Many of the posts on the recent revelations of deceptive practices in publishing felt to me like versions of "Shocked, shocked!"  Others struck me as embarrassingly self-important and sanctimonious:  yes, deception is ugly, and yes, the integrity of pretty much any system is important, but come on, people, we're not talking about whitewashing torture, or concealing safety problems in nuclear reactors, or a ginned-up controversy to persuade people that climate change isn't real.  We write stories.  We sell them online.  Yes, it matters and yes, we need to ensure insofar as possible that it's done with integrity, but it isn't life-or-death.  Perspective.

The emotions I sensed in play in many of the online condemnations I read made me uncomfortable.  Anytime I feel anger, umbrage, dudgeon, outrage, etc -- any emotion that inherently involves a sense of personal superiority -- I distrust the emotion and try to rigorously question whether the sense of personal superiority isn't at least in part what's driving the ostensibly underlying emotion.  Most people would argue that to the extent they feel self-righteous, it's because they feel angry.  In my experience, though, it's frequently the opposite:  they feel angry so they can feel self-righteous.  Multiply this dynamic a bit and you quickly get a mob.

Now, I wouldn't call NSPHP mob behavior, but I wouldn't describe it as maximally well conceived or executed, or a model of dispassion, either.  There are a lot of problems in this document, problems that could have been avoided by the application of just a little more care and consideration.  There are times it comes across, unnecessarily, as the author's answer to the Purity Ring.  So I can't help but wonder… why the rush?  Was this an emergency that permitted no time for that care and consideration?  Of course not.  So then what caused a group of demonstrably smart people -- every one of them a professional writer -- to produce a document as problematic as this one, a document that names bad actors when it should focus on bad actions; that equates pernicious deception with the truly noxious variety; that muddies its own purported purity with a strange and jargon-laden plea to readers?  And the answer, I think, is that they were in too much of a hurry to condemn, and probably because (i) condemnation feels good; and (ii) if there's a hurry, the whole thing must be Very Important.  Exactly the kinds of emotional drivers I've learned to distrust (but which, I hope needless to say, I recognize in part because I struggle with them myself).

This is just my sense -- just my opinion -- and I could be wrong about all of it.  But it leaves me feeling uneasy.  I would have much preferred something shorter, simpler, and less redolent of those untrustworthy emotions.  Maybe:

We're concerned about recent revelations of authors buying -- and creating false accounts ("sock puppets") to post -- online customer reviews.  Although publishing is hardly a perfect industry, and although these specific practices differ in various respects, we believe buying, and using sock puppets to post, online reviews are particularly deceptive practices that degrade the integrity of the online customer review system.  Because we want to protect both the actual and perceived integrity of that system to ensure that it remains useful and trustworthy for authors and readers alike, we're posting here to condemn these practices, and to invite others similarly concerned to add their names to ours.

That's more or less what I would have written, but the NSPHP folks did theirs first and I respect that.  Given that NSPHP is already out there, is garnering signatures, and is backed by some major names in fiction, I don't think it would be productive at this point to try to improve it, or to try to replace it with something better.  Which left me with a fairly simple choice:  do I do more good by signing, or by steering clear?  The document invites people to "put your name behind these sentiments," but it's precisely the sentiments I distrust.  And so this simple choice wasn't an easy one -- which is too bad, because it could have been.

So I signed, but not "unreservedly," and I'll be watching this thing with a wary eye because of the kinds of emotions I sense are partly at work behind it.  And whether or not others agree with my call or anything else I've written here, I do hope all authors will honestly consider the more mundane and more widespread types of corruption endemic to publishing, and what they might personally do to improve those practices given their demonstrated concern about the integrity of the overall system.  All this will require cool heads, a distrust of insidiously self-pleasuring emotions, and the humility fostered by reflection upon the meaning of Matthew 7:3.


Almost immediately after putting my name to it (with reservations and a link to this blog post, for what that's worth), I've been feeling increasingly uneasy at the way people are rushing to ostentatiously demonstrate their GoodThink at NSPHP.

I've found myself thinking about what it must have been like to be in Congress at the time of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, or after 9/11 when the Patriot Act and Iraq War Resolution were passed.  Too many scared and angry people, too many people afraid of being accused of not supporting the ends because they couldn't condone the means.  Too many people acting in haste and not sufficiently in touch with their real motivations.

(The critical difference, of course, being... what did Henry Kissinger say when asked why academic politics are so vicious?  "Because the stakes are so small.")

Hoping to foster a bit more reflection, I posted at NSPHP the following video.  The moderators removed it (explaining publicly that they did so because they want the comment section to be only for signatures).

Although I think it would have been useful for the NSPHP site to note in advance that the comment section is only for signatures, I respect the right of the moderators to run the site however and for whatever purpose they wish.  But given everything else I've discussed here; given what I've seen since; and given my increasing concern about the applicability of the Two Minutes Hate, I've come to believe I made my close call in the wrong direction.  NSPHP has plenty of engine; what it really needs, I think, is more brakes.  Had I thought of this a little earlier, I would have made the right call the first time around.  But better late than never.  I've asked the moderators to remove my signature.  I think I can better serve authors and readers with disinterested individual commentary than by being just another Me Too.