I’m afraid I come from an earlier, more innocent time. When I was young a sock puppet was just that – a puppet made from a sock. Those of a similar vintage might remember Shari Lewis and her sock puppet Lamb Chop, who were very popular for a while on television in the Seventies. It was a perfectly simple and innocent thing.
Those days are long gone, sadly. Shari Lewis died in 1998. Lamb Chop was, after all, only a sock – even though he did testify before Congress – and even the word ‘sockpuppet’ has taken on darker associations.
Wikipedia defines the term as ‘an online identity used for the purposes of deception,’ which I think pretty much covers it, and it’s been much on the minds of online folk recently. It’s a term I’ve been familiar with since my days on LiveJournal. Back then it was used to denote a fake account – or numerous fake accounts – used by trolls to attack or otherwise piss off other users. Those were simpler times.
I think it was William Gibson who said that the Street finds its own use for technology, and so it has been for sockpuppetry. Those early trolls on LJ, monstrous though some of them were, didn’t appreciate the commercial possibilities of what they were doing.
My first awareness of what we might as well call Sockpuppetgate, if it wasn’t such a long word, was the story of Stephen Leather, a best-selling thriller writer, who admitted visiting forums using sockpuppet accounts and bigging up his work.
According to Jeremy Duns, another thriller writer and scourge of plagiarists and bad practice, Leather went further than that, using his sockpuppets to post positive reviews of his work on Amazon, and adversely reviewing his rivals.
The Stephen Leather thing is, as far as I know, still up in the air and I’ll leave it to braver people to comment on it, but Jeremy Duns recently outed another thriller writer who has also used sockpuppet accounts to post glowing reviews of his own work and to diss other writers.
To his credit, RJ Ellory – for it was he, and I have to confess I’d never heard of him – put his hands up and apologised for what, it turned out, was a career of sockpuppeting that had gone on for a decade.
Then the crime writer John Locke admitted to having bought reviews of his books, in a curious echo of those who buy followers on Twitter. Presumably there are positive-review mills out there, just as there are profile farms. As with profile farms, the simple fact that you can buy reviews suggests there is a lucrative market out there, which is worth thinking about.
There’s rather a good roundup of the history and current state of play of this thing here, and sobering reading it makes too.
Anyone who’s crossed paths with Amazon will know that positive reviews will drive up a book’s ranking on the website, making it a little more visible. Similarly, negative reviews will nudge a book’s average ranking down, making it a little less visible. This is why we get bombarded with tweets and Facebook messages to read a self-published author’s book and stick up a review on Amazon. So there is a definite commercial advantage to puffing your book under an assumed name, and heaping opprobrium on a competitor’s.
Amazon seems to have been slow to respond to all of this. It’s not really their fault that some people are venal and deceitful – although they have put in place, probably in all innocence, an environment in which sockpuppets can flourish and manipulate the rankings market – but clearly some means of verifying the identity of whoever posts reviews has to be put in place. And since a fairly chunky percentage of the internet, as I’ve pondered over before, seems to exist behind false names and identities, that might be tricky. Still, the whole thing reflects badly on the way things are set up on Amazon, and it would probably gain them some kudos if they could take this particular bull by the horns.
So far, this particular little storm seems to have been mostly confined to crime writers. That’s almost certainly because Jeremy Duns – and the man can’t do everything, he has books to write and a life of his own – has only looked at writers in his own genre. I can see no reason why this is not happening in science fiction, romance, or any other genre. Quite to what extent is anyone’s guess. The figures so far outed may be the exceptions, or there may be many more sockpuppets out there, duking it out to promote their particular author’s work.
Should we care? Well, yes, I think we should. Going onto an online forum as yourself and telling everyone your work’s the bee’s knees and then having a discussion about it is one thing. Going in as someone – several someones, even – else is different. Buying reviews from people who’ve never read your book is different. Deliberately giving negative reviews to other writers is different. This is not ‘promotion.’ Promotion takes place in the open air and everyone knows it’s going on. This is different. This is underhand and sneaky and, maybe I’m being naive, unprofessional.
And yes, some of you will tell me I am being naive. It’s not a nice world out there, Dave. It’s dog-eat-dog, Dave. We’ve all got to hustle to get ahead, Dave. Get with the programme or wind up as a body at the side of the road, Dave. Well, fuck that.
Writers are not honour-bound to be nice people. It’s not in the job description that you have to be a good person to write a cracking book. Most of them are, though. Most of them behave properly and treat their readers well, and the behaviour of the sockpuppeteers kind of casts a shadow on everyone else. I’m a writer too, though you’d never guess it, and it makes me feel a little grubby, an experience I normally rather enjoy.
There’s a kind of mission statement doing the rounds, signed by a number of writers – some of whom have been the victims of sockpuppets. It’s worth a look.
I’ve said this before, and no doubt I’ll say it again ad nauseam in future. All of this stuff is new. Amazon’s ranking system was set up by people who probably never in their darkest dreams suspected it would be manipulated like this. Sometimes we just can’t predict how the things we create will be used. Sometimes we’re probably better off not knowing.
It’s still a brave new world, the internet, and not everyone in it is real.