It was an inauspicious start to something that would change the face of retailing as we knew it: on July 16, 1995, the first intrepid customer strayed on to the newly live website www.amazon.com and made a purchase. Hours, or maybe days later (these were the days of dial-up internet, don't forget), Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought, by Douglas Hofstadter, was winging its way through the post. A new way of buying books had begun.
Fifteen years on and the website, which now has operations in the UK, Canada, Germany, Japan, France and China, has extended its product base to include music, DVDs, furniture, toys, clothes and food. It is now the world's largest online retailer and one of the great commercial success stories of the internet era. Not only that, its wireless electronic reading device, the Kindle, which it introduced in 2007, has sent shock-waves through the publishing industry. In December 2009, sales of e-books on the website overtook those of printed books for the first time as people rushed to load up their newly-opened Christmas present (the Kindle was the most popular gift in Amazon's history) with reading material.
But as Amazon well knows, its success is down to more than just the products it sells: the company's decision early on to allow customers to provide feedback on all items they bought quickly gave rise to a thriving online community - the first, really, since social networking sites were still several years away - who could give a review and a star rating on anything from a lawnmower to the latest Dan Brown novel.
Today it has expanded into a worldwide network of thousands of regular pundits, some of whom have made reviewing Amazon products their full-time job. Reviewers receive no money for their toils. All that is asked by Amazon is that the review be "detailed and specific", and be kept to between 75 and 300 words (the content is then checked for indecency). So who are these people and why do they do it? As Amazon turns 15, we take a look at the opinionated and often controversial world of the "super-reviewers".
"I had always been an avid reader, and have always wanted to be a writer" says Daniel Jolley, who works at a private university library in North Carolina and has been writing reviews on Amazon since 2000. "I thought that reviewing would help jump-start my writing career by getting me accustomed to writing something almost every day. I didn't realise back then that writing reviews would become an obsession all its own." He has since written 2,873 reviews on everything from books to computer software and is currently ranked 17th in the US.
Ah, the rankings, that deeply controversial aspect of the reviewing system that is, for some, their motivation and, for others, their bête noire. Introduced in 2000, it allowed visitors to the website to vote on whether they thought a review was 'helpful' or 'unhelpful'. A combination of the number of helpful votes together with the number of the reviews was then computed to produce a ranking for each reviewer. Considering the tens of thousands of people contributing reviews to Amazon, Jolley's 17th position is impressive stuff. Even more so is Donald Mitchell's 7th. The head of a finance and strategy firm in Boston, and the author of seven books about productivity, Mitchell started writing reviews on Amazon.com in 1999. His total now stands at 3,926.
It all started with business and investing books, to "see what the process was like", and soon he, too, was hooked. Later, with his own book due out, he "thought it would be a good time to write reviews and mention that I was a book author," he says in his latest work, Adventures of an Optimist'. "Perhaps someone would be curious and take a look at my books." Mitchell had seized on the power of reviews to generate interest, a mutually beneficial by-product by which both Amazon and the author could boost sales.
In the UK, where Amazon set up a separate operation in 1998, competition is no less fierce. At the top of Amazon.co.uk's reviewing tree sits Patrick Harris, an unemployed former IT executive from Leicester, who has written 3,089 reviews since 2002, mainly on music. "I've sometimes written into double figures in a day, but it all depends on what I'm doing," he says. "At the time not many people were reviewing old music. I could see the value of reviews but I wasn't able to read ones about things I wanted to buy. Then I thought if I'm not doing my fair share how can I complain?"
Sneaking in to the UK top 100, at 98, is Nick Brett, a senior procurement manager at a blue-chip company from Wiltshire in the south of England. He started writing reviews in 2000. "I'd read quite a few reviews by other people that I either thought weren't very good or very accurate, so I thought I'd start putting my own on," he says. "That was my incentive - to add truth to the myth." He now writes between five and 10 book reviews a month.
Amazon's reviewing system is, Brett says, a fantastic tool, but one that is open to abuse. "Since Amazon started it, it's become the in thing to invite customer feedback and register it. We're constantly using Amazon-type ratings for stuff at work. It's just a shame it gets abused." The abuse he is referring to comes from a particular breed of super-reviewers: the rankings-chasers. "There are people who fight the good fight and try to put in honest reviews for the benefit of consumers, and then there are those for whom the ranking becomes more important than the subject. Harriet Klausner's got to be the prime example of that."
Klausner, for the uninitiated, is the grande dame of Amazon reviewers. With a staggering 22,317 reviews on Amazon.com, she has occupied the number one spot in the US for as long as anyone can remember, but is a deeply controversial figure. "She doesn't read the books," says Brett. "Her reviews are publisher's synopses because she gets all the books free. She claims to be 'reading' about seven books a day, and has consistently done so for about eight years. But nobody can do that." Unfortunately, perhaps due to her punishing reading schedule, Klausner was unavailable for comment.
Harris, her UK counterpart, feels the same. "She has been a particularly bad reviewer," he says, "who has been accused of many things and her activities have given reviewers a bad name in some quarters." Some of her detractors may have been calmed, though, by the introduction of a new rankings system in October 2008, which puts more emphasis on 'unhelpful' than 'helpful' votes, as well as rewarding more recent reviews. The two systems now run alongside each other. According to the 'new' rankings, Klausner only makes 662.
Despite these changes, Brett feels that such abuse is not something Amazon is overly keen to address. "Every time someone gives a four or five-star rating, which Klausner consistently does, Amazon likes it because it pushes sales," he says. There is also the question of bogus reviews, or those who are written by authors of their own works under a pseudonym. It is a concept that the British historian Orlando Figes is now uncomfortably familiar with, having been caught posting euphoric reviews of his own books on the website while rubbishing his contemporaries'. On this, Brett is more lenient. "I've seen loads of cases of that," he says. "If you had a new book out wouldn't you ask your friends to go on there and give it a nice review? It might kick start some interest."
Harris himself is, despite his domination of the UK rankings, uninterested in the numbers. "It has created a lot of resentment," he says. "I get a lot of nasty comments." These, he says, are mostly due to the fact that, like Klausner, he reviews most things positively. "I did all my experimenting when I was younger," he says, "so I only write about what I like. As a result, people think I'm being paid by a publisher, but I'm not. I occasionally get offered free stuff but I only accept it if it's stuff I would buy anyway."
He admits, though, that if you're going to put your twopence worth into the public domain, there are going to be consequences. "It's not on the scale of footballers, but you've got to have a reasonably thick skin to deal with it," he says. On the flipside, the positive comments are what continue to motivate him. "But if somebody wants to overtake me, they can have it. I've had five years of it."
Despite snide remarks from some quarters, the community of long-time reviewers that has gathered on Amazon is, says Jolley, a supportive one. "We may disagree about any number of things, but we share a mutual bond of respect for each other's work. I rarely make a buying decision without sampling the opinions of my fellow reviewers." Unlike Harris, though, Jolley remains tireless in his quest to remain in the US top 20 (he is number two in the UK). "I'm not ashamed to say that the rankings system also had a lot to do with my decision to become a reviewer," he says. "It really appealed to my competitive nature. My self-worth had always been defined by grades and test scores, and after graduate school that sort of infrastructure was no longer part of my life. For a few years, even the joy of reading was lost to me. All that changed once I started reviewing, which is why I sometimes say that Amazon saved my life - or at least my sanity."
Equally for Harris, for whom reviewing on Amazon has become his main focus since losing his job in 2002, it is a way of boosting his self-esteem. "Maybe some employer will see what I'm doing and think 'you could write something for us.' In fact," he says, "some other Amazon reviewers have suggested I write a book about Amazon reviewers. But I say to them, 'who's going to buy that?'"