What Motivates Amazon's Hardcore Raters?


Harriet Klausner is a speed reader. It's a gift she was born with, according to her Amazon.com profile, where she also claims to go through two books a day. Even at that speed it would take more than 31 years to read the 22,824 novels Klausner had reviewed as of this writing. But why does she do it?

After earning her master's degree in library science, Klausner moved around the United States with her husband, a palm reader. This, according to a personal website she maintains with a complete archive of her reviews. (Klausner didn't respond to an interview request.) "I also watched my book reviewing career begin to take shape," she writes, noting that, with each city she moved to, she always found work with a library or bookstore. "I take immense pleasure informing other readers about newcomers or unknown authors who have written superb novels."

Beth Cholette, a psychologist who works at a college counseling center, also sees her Amazon profile as a way to inform others. A self-described "fitness enthusiast," Cholette reviews exercise DVDs, the occasional "chick lit novel" and some other products -- "like a protein bar." She does it "to help others," she told me. "That's it."

And help she has. With about 1,500 reviews to her name, Cholette will probably never unseat Klausner as the most prolific Amazon reviewer, but she ranks higher on the website's list of top customer reviewers. Under the new ranking system, Cholette places fourth because 93 percent of her comments have been chosen as helpful by readers. She also has more than 240 fan voters, or customers who frequently return to see what she has to say.

Klausner, on the other hand, ranks around 700. Only about 70 percent of readers have rated her reviews as helpful. Some, in fact, believe she's lying about having read that many books, calling attention to month-long spurts during which she averaged about 20 reviews per day. All of her reviews are either four or five stars and could be written after having read a jacket cover, her critics have said, with one going so far as to launch The Harriet Klausner Appreciation Society at harriet-rules.blogspot.com, a group blog for those who decidedly do not appreciate Harriet Klausner.

It's even been suggested that Klausner doesn't exist, or that the profile exists as a means of self promotion for publishers. But "Our Lady of the Infinite Reviews" has been profiled everywhere from Wired to Time, where Lev Grossman wrote that "online critics have a kind of just-plain-folks authenticity that the professionals just can't match."

And that explains why Amazon's reviewer system is so successful. It's built entirely on the back of the everyman. Cholette might call herself a fitness enthusiast, but she still spends most of her hours doing things the average Amazon shopper can relate to: working, commuting, being with family.

"Unfortunately, I believe that the difficulties in navigating the menus of this DVD significantly limit its usefulness," Cholette wrote in her review of Jason Crandell's Yoga Journal: Pose Encyclopedia. "Although it may have some value as a reference tool for beginning yoga students, the layout of this 'encyclopedia' prevents it from being utilized effectively as a follow-along practice. Finally, while I am generally a fan of video media, in this instance, I think more experienced students or teachers looking for a reference manual would be more likely to benefit from one in book form...."

As a writer, it's difficult for me to reproduce those sentences here. They're bland. But Cholette is not a writer; she's a psychologist who just happens to enjoy spending her free time with exercise DVDs. And who am I to judge her review anyway? Two out of two people found it helpful.

Hundreds of Amazon users have reviewed more than 1,000 products each on the site. And millions of people have read and responded to those reviews. Amazon maintains two different public lists of the top 10,000 reviewers: a classic ranking and a new ranking that are both updated daily. In addition to emphasizing reviewers who have been rated as helpful, the new ranking gives more weight to recent reviews and attempts to weed out friends who might be "stuffing the ballot box."

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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