Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Pile-On


I've been noticing a peculiar phenomenon on review sites: the lower a book's rating, the more people flock to read and comment on the review.

For example, I was at Dear Author yesterday. The review of a novel rated "DNF" had already garnered quite a few comments. Recent and more benign posts received roughly from five to ten comments each. I've seen this at Reviews by Jessewave, too, sometimes to a startling degree.

"Authors Behaving Badly" articles invariably draw crowds -- usually with torches held high, like incensed villagers in the old Frankenstein movies. I've seen countless such episodes on the Internet.


What's up with this? What does it say about human nature? I often get the sense that a lot of people derive some perverse joy from the missteps or failures of others. I can't deny I've peeked in on such discussions -- and probably, when I was still a newbie, participated in some -- but I always depart feeling a little skeeved.

Voicing one's outrage over truly reprehensible attitudes or behavior, as Teddypig sometimes does or Kris did so eloquently in this post, is completely comprehensible to me. You know the saying: If you don't stand up for something, you'll fall for anything. There are countless injustices against which we should speak out. Hell, there are even individuals whose conduct is so odious they deserve to get the collective raspberry. But these aren't the sorts of things I'm referring to.

So . . . what's it all about, Alfie? Granted, we're all capable of morbid curiosity as well as petty resentments and self-righteous snits. But public pile-ons disturb me. Do our own insecurities combined with a herd mentality demand we take satisfaction in the crash-and-burn moments of others? En masse? Just wondering.

Footnote: The final paragraph in this post by Mrs. Giggles appears to be a recent example of what I've been babbling about.

22 comments:

Tam said...

Hmmm. You ask hard questions.

I know for my little shorty reviews the length of my review often seems inversely proportional to how much I liked it. I can rant on forever about something that annoyed me but if its a great book I can seem to get away with saying "loved it" and that's that. Extremes generate strong opinions which generate comments. Who comments on a book that was 3.5 stars. Meh. It was fine, not much scope for discussion. Did you enjoy how "average" they were?

There can be a feeding frenzy mentality on the net, or maybe some people are unsure of their own reaction but suddenly seeing their opinion validated feel compelled to jump in now they feel confident they are not alone out there. If someone gives a book 5* and you gave it 1* you sometimes start to question yourself. Maybe I was on crack when I read it and missed how great goat-love really is? But the extremes do make people more willing to step out of lurkdom.

Even if the book in question was m/f and I would normally never read an m/f review, if I saw it was DNF I'd feel compelled to see why. That's a pretty serious charge (if you will), does it share traits I consider DNF worthy or was it something else. We all love a train wreck. Human nature perhaps, unattractive though it can be.

K. Z. Snow said...

But, Tam, it only seems to be the negative extreme that draws the crowds. A lot of people might look in on a positive or rave review (or maybe not, if they expected it), but for the most part, the really BIG numbers show up, for views and sometimes for comments, when a book is soundly trounced. I've seen it at Smart Bitches, DA, and Wave's.

Your site is different, I think. It's much smaller (so far), and you've got pretty easygoing followers who come for a good time as much as for reviews. It's just a friendlier environment. ;-)

Chris said...

Maybe it's like rubbernecking at a traffic accident... In fact, on Ravelry (the insanely popular and busy social site for knitters), there's a Rubberneckers group - they alert each other to the latest kerfuffle on the site.

Tam, of course, has all sorts of good points and has expressed them more eloquently than I would have. My reviews are much shorter than Tam's, but I do notice that the books on the extremes (the ones I felt were extremely good or extremely bad) are the easiest to write about. The bad are the very easiest, because the things that bothered me stick out in my memory. All too often, when everything's working for me in a book, I can't (or don't really want to) dissect it beyond it being a good read.

If a book is DNF for me, and it's due to something beyond having all sorts of structural/continuity/logic/sanity issues (brutal rapes usually end a book for me), I don't mention it on my blog, although they always get tagged as such on LibraryThing (my GoodReads books/reads are already woefully out of date). Sometimes people contact me to say "Hey, you're the only person who read this and you gave it a DNF/single star etc - why was that?" Of course, I'm not reviewing on the scale of Wave or even Jenre, so...

K. Z. Snow said...

The rubbernecking impulse I can sort of understand. We're curious creatures. It's the "stoning" mentality I don't get, that rather sanctimonious urge to band together for the sake of attacking someone.

I saw a really bizarre example of that on Amazon this past year, when an author (who once wrote for EC and Cerridwen) was foolish enough to speak out against a one-star review. Holy crap! People just flocked like those manic seagulls in Hitchcock's movie to drill her a new one. Granted, she did seem a little loopy, but the pecking and poking went on for days and days...even after the author had pulled out of the fray.

And then there's that #romfail business on Twitter, wherein snarky Tweets pile up over a book one person deems unworthy. WTF?

I guess the mob mentality just plain creeps me out. More often than not, I end up feeling sorry for the "victim," no matter how shitty her/his book was or how nutty her/his behavior. Maybe I shouldn't have read those histories of the Salem witch trials.

Jenre said...

Possibly because a review which gives a book a very low grade or even a DNF is actually very rare on review sites. Let's face it most books get between 3-4 stars depending on the quality of the book. So when a reader sees a low grade of 1-2 stars they feel compelled to read it and find out why the book was so bad. The comments that usually follow those reviews are often expressing support for the reviewer because I generally find that reviewers don't like writing reviews which grades a book so low - I know I don't. I think other commenters know this too so the comments are along the lines of 'you've done well to say why this book didn't work for you', or something like that - or at least they are at Wave's blog.

In terms of my blog, it doesn't make a different at all to the number of comments. The one recent 'Terrible' review I posted got fewer comments than an 'Excellent' review that was posted a couple of days before it.

The reviews that have had most comments for me recently have been for 'A Red Tainted Silence' which was a 5+ review and such a well loved book lots of people left comments to say how much they loved it, and 'Puppy Love' where my mention of the water play scenes had people leave lots of comments about how they couldn't read a book containing golden shower scenes - much to the author's consternation, I noticed.

Tam and Chris are right too - human nature makes it difficult to ignore a train wreck.

Teddy Pig said...

Now I have to admit more than a few people have called me rude and obnoxious enough to know I am most likely rude and obnoxious.

I try to keep it at a low level.

Like the world needs another raging maniac going around calling people names and such.

The book review thing...

I did a couple of negative ones and frankly got lots of responses and comments and blog love but I sat down and soul searched about that.

1. Do I really feel that ripped off or just was the book not for "me"?

2. Is there something I can point to and show as the real problem that might be helpful to someone else writing or tip people off to what I found wrong with the book? Or am I just venting because I am pissed off in general?

This is usually tipped off by overly generalized feelings.

In the end I would rather spend my time getting people hooked on the good things. There are tons of books out there I find icky but it's much more fun to point out the good stuff.

K. Z. Snow said...

Jen, I think it's primarily the "monster" review blogs where this phenomenon shows up, since they attract a wide variety of readers. Yours is a very civil place, because that's the tone you've set. You always try to emphasize the positive.

K. Z. Snow said...

You're not rude and obnoxious, Teddy; you just speak your mind. And you do it for a good reason -- to enlighten people.

It is nice to see how supportive you are of the authors you believe in. Reviewers all take different approaches. Far as I'm concerned, as long as the approach is open-minded and not grounded in some snotty know-it-all attitude, it's valid.

Teddy Pig said...

Now you got me going over and reading Kris and now I have to blog about her abusing her baby brother.

LVLM said...

Like Tam and others have said, a negative review is easier to discuss. If a review is all this is great blah, blah, well, what's to discuss unless a commenter writes that they didn't like it?

And I think people just like to discuss. I do. heh.

I think when a review is negative we want to know why more than we want to know why something worked for someone.

I think a good reviewer can write a negative review but still make people curious enough to check it out for themselves anyway.

I looked at that last DNF review on DA and almost all the comments were actually positive. Many saying that they either actually liked the book or would still give it a try.

I saw what you posted on KatieB's blog about the latest author behaving badly and I totally agreed with you. I felt that author made a mistake by commenting as he did but I felt his frustration at the lack of reception to his really trying to own up to it and move on.

I also don't like the #romfail thing. I'm rather turned off by that even though some of those books should never have gotten published.

Personally, I don't like pile-ons. I think many people use it as an excuse to vent their own frustrations about whatever and to feel better about themselves.

K. Z. Snow said...

Teddy :-)

Always nice to hear from you, Leah!

I agree about the lure of discussion. Participating in rational discourse is always a good thing. But when discussion turns to bashing, I'm very put off. I don't understand lack of compassion, which simply comes down to the ability to walk in someone else's shoes and see the world through their eyes.

Jeanne Barrack said...

You know my feelings, KZ and why. I'm thinking when everything in my life is squared away, I might just get the guts to respond...
btw, when I get my strength up, I'll tell you what's happenin'.

Val said...

You've got a point, KZ. I've seen this, too, on the very big review sites such as DA or Amazon. Something about the collective energy that comes with a huge group plus the ability to comment anonymously leads to a mob mentality at times. Which in turn can lead to site owners pandering to the visitors' blood-lust (ok, that was a little melodramatic, ha, ha!) because there is no denying that a pile-up causes traffic to spike upwards.

But, with some foresight, site owners can head off that sort of thing by maintaining a consistently friendly, supportive atmosphere. I think it speaks well for Wave's site that none of the readers wanted to touch the most negative review that I wrote there (which wasn't snarky at all). I'm talking no comments or even clicks to view the page. The readers wanted no part of it. Very interesting!

Kris said...

Gee, KZ, is this where I thank you for bringing me to Teddy's attention? ;)

In all seriousness, though, thanks for what you said about my post. It means a lot coming from someone of whom I have a great deal of respect.

I wonder sometimes when I see or hear about a discussion - no matter if it started over a negative review or not - derailing whether it's in some part due to some people's instant 'thank God it's not me' reaction. Do you know what I mean? The 'thank God I'm not the only one who feels/thinks this way' or the 'thank God I'm not the one being criticised', etc.

I also think that blogging groups/cliques as well as the anonymity of the internet tend to exacerbate these types of situations. Let's face it, it is very easy to be defensive and/or offensive when it's somebody/thing you know that's being critiqued or attacked.

K. Z. Snow said...

Please do, Jeanne!

Thanks for stopping in Val. You're absolutely right about the atmosphere that's maintained on a blog. Wave's done a commendable job of keeping her place in order. Visitors might often read the negative reviews in droves, but at least they don't jump in and start snarking away.

I don't recall any of your reviews not getting a single click. Hm...strange.

You, like Jen, are unfailingly thoughtful and always manage to strike a professional tone. That makes all the difference in how readers respond. Pile-ons seem to be initiated by people who do just the opposite.

K. Z. Snow said...

You're welcome, Oz-cake. I've always known there's a big heart lurking beneath Teh Krazy. ;-)

The "thank God" mentality certainly plays a part in pile-ons, as does Internet anonymity. But people can be silently thankful and don't have to use Internet anonymity to indulge their baser impulses.

My inescapable conclusion is that certain individuals pump up their own self-images by publicly belittling others. The implication is, of course, that superior individuals recognize and scorn inferiority...which makes them even more superior.

Val said...

Thanks, KZ, especially for this:

"You, like Jen, are unfailingly thoughtful and always manage to strike a professional tone."

I exaggerated a little when I said not a single click, but definitely the readers seemed to be squeamish about the negative review to the point of not wanting to comment. I can understand that.

This, "That makes all the difference in how readers respond. Pile-ons seem to be initiated by people who do just the opposite" I definitely have to agree with.

Those really snarky reviewers who try to stir up trouble and traffic tend to forget that they're acting like parasites. I mean, they owe their blog's popularity to the fact that the authors create something that they can then snark on!

K. Z. Snow said...

You're more than welcome, Val. I don't think you have a snarky bone in your body!

That's still weird about your review, though. Could it have been the author wasn't well-known enough to generate interest? In doing my little bit of research for this post, I saw some 1 and 2 reviews at Wave's that had upward of 300 and 400 views!

Emeraldjaguar said...

I'd agree with you, but then I'd just be hopping on your bandwagon, egging you on :P

And yes, I notice that I get very few comments if I post a positive review as opposed to if I really didnt like a book. People want me to be bitchy. Doesn't stop me from loving on good books, whenever I read one. Which I just haven't had time to do lately.

K. Z. Snow said...

Emmy, where've you been? (I'll bet Anah and Dianne are happy for the prolonged exposure, though!)

Never fear; I don't have a bandwagon. Almost had one, but it was repopped before I found a band to ride in it. They would've probably been a shitty band anyway--story of my life. ;-)

Treva Harte said...

It's been a long time since I reviewed books but I remember my very first 5 star review and one book I gave a one star review. It's possible the one star would work for someone else -- it triggered a strong emotion in me, which can mean it does work on some level.

K. Z. Snow said...

A lot of people seem automatically to assume, though, that a given reviewer's rating is absolute, not relative. They lose sight of the subjectivity of individual opinions. That's something else I don't understand.