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NS Internet Column

People talk about technology that can deprave and corrupt, but itís hard to imagine anything which has a worse effect on the character than the chance to write an anonymous book review. It used to be something that you could only do when attached to the right sort of scholarly journal. But Amazon.com has extended the privilege to anyone and in the last week it has started to be misused in really creative ways.

God knows how these fashions start, but it is obvious how they spread: s really good joke can spread with the speed of a chain letter on email and have been round the world thousands of times before anyone in authority notices. The first to break the surface last week was extremely obscure: a childrenís classic about "Ping", a duck, originally published in 1934, was earnestly reviewed as if it were an allegorical study of "ping", a command a bit like sending out a sonar pulse which is used to establish whether another computer on your network is alive. So the reviewer solemnly explains that the little duck is an allegory for a packet of data, and it travels from the shelter of one great ship (or computer) to another; before returning home. The joke had apparently been doing the rounds for some time on slashdot.org, a site devoted to the Linux operating system, and thus populated entirely by people with minds like tree roots: massive, dry and hideously twisted.

Amazon.com removed the Ping joke after a couple of days. But by then the infection had spread. A book of sentimental cartoons has suddenly hit with sixteen reviews, purportedly from Senator Strom Thurmond, Microsoft and the New York Times, which praised it for glimpses into the deepest heart of human depravity which Graham Greene or Joseph Conrad would be proud of. With millions of books in their catalogues, Amazon will be vulnerable to jokes like this for as long as they allow customers review; yet these reviews are meant to be an important part of the attraction of online bookshops.

They can be sometimes be really rather harmful fun. Most of the anonymous reviews on Amazon do no harm and act only as a measure of the bookís popularity. Huge numbers of the reviews are unable to write coherently, so we can assume they donít recognise this faculty on others. But there are specialised areas where people do depend on reviews. If you want to buy a computer book, there is only one publisher, OíReilly, whose products are always clear, accurate and comprehensive. The Dummies books are also reliable, but they donít cover nearly as much ground.

But OíReilly specialises in manuals for really arcane software, much of it running on Unix. Most of the software for Windows or the Mac is covered by fiercely competitive publishers, all putting out books that are as fat as possible, because they designed to force the competition physically off the shelves. Less attention is paid to their contents, which are all virtually identical and completely worthless, since they are written using unfinished copies of the software and normally just rewrite and rearrange the manual and the publicity material. These things are hard enough to choose in a real bookshop where there may be five on the same subject . Online, with thirty or more to choose from, it is almost impossible to avoid going to the reviews and trying to trust them. There is a slot on Amazon for authors to declare themselves and to write about their own books. But there is nothing to stop them appearing anonymously and denouncing the competitionís. There are a number of computer books where this seems to have happened. There is plenty of scope, too, for an enterprising publicity department to organise a concerted plugging campaign though this does not seem to have happened yet.

A couple of years back it was fashionable to suggest that the wonderful thing about the Internet was that it allowed us to be whoever we wanted to pretend to be. The anonymous reviews at Amazon suggest one of the reasons why this dream was just silly. Opinions are worth hearing partly because there is a risk to making them known. The risk may be very small indeed: just that of being seen to be wrong, silly, or unfashionable. But these are surprisingly powerful sanctions; and it seems to be an unbreakable rule of electronic intercourse that good conversation only arises where people are forced to adapt coherent personas and to be ready to defend what they have said. . Anonymity may allow us to speak our mind, but speaking our minds need have nothing to do with honesty.

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