Scanning through the BBC’s online technology articles this week, I found my interest piqued by the news that Amazon have launched a lawsuit against 1,114 individuals offering review services in exchange for payment. The online marketplace site through which these users were operating, Fiverr, seemed oddly familiar and I soon realised why.
Back in 2013, I had set up a Google Alert to ping my increasingly bloated Gmail inbox with any literature relating to the topic of digital reputation management. In amongst the media hubbub around the “social influence” platforms du jour (see: Klout, PeerIndex, Kred, etc) came an intriguing article by Kevin Ashton, published in Quartz and titled, “How to become internet famous for $68”.
Within the article, Ashton described the relative ease with which he had been able to construct a seemingly credible “person” (named, rather magnificently I felt, Santiago Swallow) complete with (what seemed to be) a verified Twitter account, tens of thousands of followers, and a Wikipedia entry detailing his various industry-based accolades. Playing a key role in the digital birth of Santiago was Fiverr, which Ashton had used to quickly amass 90,000 Twitter “followers” all for the seemingly inexpensive outlay of $50.
The way that Fiverr operates is essentially as follows. The platform seeks to sustain a “sharing economy” in which users offer “Gigs” that cost $5, but can increase accordingly for more complex tasks or demands. These Gigs can involve everything from the relatively mundane (e.g. proof-reading, web analytics) to the outright bizarre (e.g. carving your name on an apple, personal belly-dancing, a personalised birthday message in the voice of Morgan Freeman), and are typically turned around in a matter of days. Fiverr, it seems, caters for all tastes.
Relaying the digital escapades of Santiago Swallow, Kevin Ashton appeared to be using his seemingly impressive new online persona as a way of shining a light upon the often flimsy superficiality of online reputation, and in particular, the folly of reading too much into the social influence “scores” assigned by the aforementioned platforms. For instance, despite being completely fictitious, Santiago apparently scored an impressive 754 out of 1,000 upon Kred, which placed him somewhere close to the illustrious bracket of social media veterans, Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian. Most pressingly, however, Ashton invited us to stop and ponder,
“Hang on. Knowing that this is all possible, how can we possibly trust the authenticity of anything or anyone online anymore?”
And this brings us neatly back to the Amazon lawsuit. The service that they have specifically objected to in recent days is the number of Fiverr Gigs that offer Amazon reviews in exchange for money. Indeed, a cursory search upon Fiverr for “Amazon Reviews” reveals numerous users offering such a service, ranging from the extremely vaguely-worded (“I will write an awesome review!”), to those who specifically distinguish between “honest” and “promotional” reviews. All pose a particular problem to sites such as Amazon, which rely upon the veracity and authenticity of “real” customer reviews (see also the practice of astroturfing), and, therefore, reputation and trust.
Whilst it is relatively unsurprising that Amazon are actively seeking to address the source of these apparently “fake” product reviews, it is intriguing that they should go after the individual Fiverr users rather than the platform itself. Indeed, according to both the BBC and Forbes, Fiverr are co-operating with Amazon, but it is at present unclear as to what this entails and how it will effect future “Gigs” of a similar form. Their reaction will be crucial in determining the reoccurrence of such issues in the future, especially as the platform not only enables the offering of this form of digital reputation-smoke-and-mirrors act (see: the purchasing of Twitter and Facebook followers, as used for Santiago Swallow), but seemingly permits it to continue (the screenshot above was taken today, 20/10/2015).
One way around this for Amazon may be to readdress how they assign so-called “verified purchases”, possibly prioritising these over non-verified reviews. However, according to reports some review service providers have found ways around this, and this is reflected in many of the services offering “verified reviews” in the Gig listings on Fiverr. Subsequently, Amazon are effectively forced to do something to address this issue, as consumer trust in their reviews is a cornerstone of their reputation as an online vendor. Legal action may represent the start of this process, but ultimately, greater consideration should perhaps be afforded to tackling the sharing economy platforms that enable these types of online services to flourish.