Thursday, March 13, 2014

My New Amazon Petition

You may have read that bestselling author Anne Rice has joined an online petition, started by Todd Barselow, requesting that Amazon:

"revise their policies regarding anonymity when it comes to writing product/book reviews and for participation in the forums. Reviewers and forum participants should not be anonymous. By removing their anonymity and forcing them to display their real, verified identities, I believe that much of the harassment and bullying will cease."

As of today's date, this petition has been signed by more than 6000 people, seeking to put an end to Mean Anonymous People on the Internet (MAPI.)

Naturally, they supported their position by linking to thousands of occurrences of bullying. Just because I can't find any links, either in the petition or the comments, doesn't mean they aren't there. I mean, they have to be there, right? When you decry something and demand change, don't you link to specific examples?

(If someone can point me to these links, please do.)

Normally, I'd be against such a petition, claiming it is an instance of moral panic. Just like the No Sock Puppets Here Please folks two years ago. I thought they were acting publicly insecure, and ultimately very silly. After their online petition, Amazon removed thousands of reviews, including many reviews of my books, and reviews I've written of other books. These were legitimate, thoughtful reviews, and the result of Amazon's action personally is that I no longer review books on their site. Why should I spend time writing a review if it can be deleted without any explanation?

I also value free speech, even anonymously, and I dislike the idea of policing public forums. I believe people have the right to voice things you don't like, even if they don't sign their real name.

Anonymity allows people to say things--in some cases positive things--that they wouldn't say otherwise. Writing a review of erotica without your children knowing it is you. Weighing in on a heated debate without making yourself a target. Whistle blowing.

Now Amazon can do whatever they want; they're a private company. You might not like some of their policies, but they aren't the government, and we don't get to vote to decide what they should and shouldn't do.

They have terms of service, and customers can report hate speech, threats, and harassment. (Perhaps that's why the petition didn't supply links to offenders--Amazon has removed them.)

Amazon won't ever be able to police their entire site 24/7 because that would be impossible. I don't believe they should even try to. If Amazon listens to this petition and tries to end all anonymity, with the aim of stopping MAPI, I think it is a slippery slope.

This slippery slope means there is no place to draw the line. If you demand something be deleted from a forum because it offends you, where does that end? Amazon doesn't allow hate speech or threats. But being critical and mean-spirited, even anonymously, has to be protected. If it isn't, watch how quickly you get hauled off to jail for criticizing a government, or a law. In countries without free speech, anonymity is the only way to voice opinions.

We have to let the pinheads spout their nonsense in order to be truly free. Forcing manners on someone doesn't make for a polite society--it makes for a totalitarian society.

We also live in a time where anyone kicked off of a forum can get back on within minutes using a proxy.

If everywhere public voices mingle is policed, some good voices will be silenced, good people will mingle less, and trolls will whine about their rights--and they may have a point because of that annoying due process/freedom of speech/Constitution thing. And when trolls do get kicked off, they'll come right back.

Do those signing this petition really think there's a way to stop people from posting anonymously? How? Credit card verification? I can buy a $25 Visa gift card at Walmart and open up an Amazon account under any name I choose. Maybe Amazon should fingerprint all customers? Demand a DNA sample? A retina scan?

So I was originally against telling a private company what they should do, and I believed the petition was ridiculous, and potentially harmful.

Then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized something startling:

That petition doesn't go far enough.

MAPI aren't beneficial to society at all. They need to be silenced, and held accountable for being mean. But why stop there? There are many other things we should insist Amazon start doing.

So I decided to start my own petition. Along with asking Amazon to stop anonymous posting, I have some other demands.

1. Remove all 1 star reviews. I have hundreds of them, and they hurt my feelings and make me feel sad. If Amazon got rid of all 1 star reviews, and customers could only rate on a scale of 2-5, it would eliminate a lot of the anger and frustration felt by authors.

2. Everyone who reviews or comments on Amazon should not only post their real name, but also their address, phone number, last three income tax returns, whom they voted for in the last several elections, and pictures of them showering. Let's make sure that people are REALLY held accountable for their opinions by outlawing privacy completely. (I think the NSA may be able to help here.)

3. All reviewers must prove they actually bought the book, finished it entirely, swear on the religious tome of their choice that they weren't paid for their review, and then make sure the review ably defends their star rating. Naturally, this last point can only be possible if they've taken several college courses on How To Properly Review, and have attained a minimum of a B average.

4. I don't like the words "mirthquake" or "thrillomedy". Amazon needs to delete these stupid words wherever they appear on their website.

5. When someone posts something that someone else doesn't like on, Amazon should send a representative to that poster's home and beat the crap out of them

6. Amazon should use bots and spiders to constantly patrol their website, permanently banning anyone who uses too many exclamation points. Or adjectives. 

7. Murder is a very serious topic. It is, quite literally, killing people. Amazon needs to take a stand and stop all murder. Worldwide. Forever. Because murder is bad. 

8. I want a pony, but they're expensive and I don't have enough room on my property for one. Amazon needs to buy me a pony, and a farm where I can keep the pony. Also, lots of hay.

Joe sez: I know trolls can cause pain. I just think policing words is potentially more painful than any words could be. The NSA would love to know every hacktivist in the international network known as Anonymous, but I think it is better for the world if they remain anonymous. Getting rid of all anonymity on Amazon, or on the Internet, or in the world, is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

MAPI will always exist. If Amazon listens to the petitioners and tries to take steps to remove anonymity, they will no doubt also remove many heartfelt, positive posters along with the mean ones. And the mean ones will find a way to comment anyway. They always do.

The only way to truly deal with MAPI is to ignore them. Don't engage. Ever. And teach your children about cyber etiquette and manners. It isn't okay to try to hurt someone's feelings, even if you'll never meet that person in real life. I've never said anything online that I wouldn't say in person, and I don't post anonymously. But I defend peoples' rights to be anonymous pinheads, even if I'm their target.

Of course, there is no defense for hate speech, libel, threats, and harassment. But I believe Amazon takes steps to remove reviews and comments that violate these things. If they don't, please someone post a link to where they're failing.

The system may not be perfect, but it works. Having your feelings hurt online is not a reason to try and kill a gnat with an AK-47.

As for the petition, getting 6000 signatures is impressive. People dislike anonymous trolls, and I dislike them as well. But then, who wouldn't sign a petition stating that bullies are bad without thinking it through carefully? Signing petitions without fully understanding the consequences is something that people are good at.

Anne Rice, Todd Barselow, and the thousands of people who don't like MAPI would be better served by not reading reviews and not responding to critics. As a publishing personality who no doubt has a lot more haters than Anne Rice does, I wouldn't ever think to try and shut them up, or hold them accountable. As Michael J. Fox recently said (and Hugh Howey repeated):

"What people think about me is none of my business."

Amazon can't stop MAPI anymore than it can stop worldwide murder. My unsolicited advice to Anne and Todd is to create your own author and reader forum, celebrating books, and police it however you see fit. You can insist on zero anonymity, only allow positive comments, and kick out anyone who says anything you don't like.

And yes, my petition is real. Feel free to sign it, link to it, Tweet it, and post comments. If you do, and Amazon buys me a pony, you can come over for free pony rides.

But hopefully Amazon won't listen to me. Or Anne and Todd.


On Todd Barselow's petition website, I clicked on his name and found this, which amused me for some reason.

While I'm sure Todd is who he says he is, this made me smile.