Mark Vigeant is a comedian who uses comedy to explore and demystify technology. He is the host of Internet Explorers, a monthly comedy show at Caveat where he takes audiences into different corners of the internet. See the next show on February 15th.
I was looking for a way to clean my cast-iron skillet when my friend John recommended that I use a special chainmail “sponge.” That sounded fun and vaguely Medieval, so I looked it up on Amazon and, sure enough, not only does this thing I’ve never heard of exist, there are pages and pages of chainmail sponges made for cast iron skillets. Amazing. Now the hard part: which one do I buy?
Situations like this are when I, along with millions of other online shoppers, rely on Amazon customer reviews—those tidbits of feedback of wildly varying degrees of quality. Amazon reviews come in lots of varieties, ranging from “too short” to “definitely fake” to “Master’s Thesis” to “You edited your own video for this!? WHY?” I’m always confounded when an item I’m looking at has thousands of customer reviews. Who is writing them? Why? What’s their motivation?
It was the chain mail sponge experience that led me down the Amazon reviewer community rabbit hole. Thinking that there must be somebody out there, like the man who has made the most Wikipedia edits, who is the best Amazon reviewer, I googled “top amazon reviewer” and found this: Amazon’s leaderboard of “Top Customer Reviewers.” My jaw dropped. Amazon has a reviewer ranking system that gamifies the reviewing process! I mean, of course it does, but still I’m delighted.
The premise is simple: the more “helpful” you are, the higher your rank should be. What makes a reviewer helpful is determined by a number of factors including the number of reviews they’ve written, the number of “helpful” votes their review receives, and how recently they wrote their review. Amazon has even taken steps to prevent “stuffing the ballot box” because apparently that was a problem at one time. I love finding out about innocuous competitive Internet subcultures like this!
But there isn’t just a “Top Reviewer Ranking” list that showcases Amazon’s best current reviewers. It also has a “Hall of Fame Reviewers” list. Any elite reviewer who has risen to the top ten in the Top Reviewer Ranking, even for a day, gets in the Hall of Fame. While the Top Reviewer Ranking list fluctuates weekly, the Hall of Fame has one clear dominant presence: Joanna D, a Top 10 Reviewer in 16 different years dating back to 2001. In more than 5,000 reviews, she’s racked up more 88,000 helpful votes. The next person below her in the Hall of Fame isn’t even close. Donald Mitchell has only achieved Hall of Fame recognition a measly 11 times.
I talked to Joanna Daneman—her real name—about what keeps her going after all these years, and what she’s learned since her last media appearance, in Business Insider. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MOTHERBOARD: How did you get into this world?
Joanna Daneman: I was living in Germany. Reading books in German isn’t as enjoyable for me as it is reading in English because in English I can read really fast, so I would order books from Amazon US. The issue was figuring out what books I wanted because the sample they give you isn’t enough. But who does tell you if the book is good is the other reviewers. “50 pages I’m into this book and I’m getting nowhere.” Now that’s a book review I just read about a book by Salman Rushdie. And I’m thinking … do I want to read it? Maybe not.
And then it occurred to me that I could do reviews too because I’d probably read at least 5,000 books, so I started reviewing every book I ever read.
Is this back when Amazon just sold books?
Yes. Well, actually they sold a few other things. But mostly books. So this would’ve been in ’99.
And there was also a forum of people who would discuss the reviews and their reviewing. So this community forms on their platform. And, ya know, lots of discussion.
And Amazon became aware of this discussion board, and they invited some of the more prominent reviewers to a forum in 2004 to go to Seattle and sit down with Amazon and talk about reviewing in general because they felt they would like to create a community, sort of a village green where reviewing helped people come to the site to get good information and then of course you might stay and click on a few things and put them in your shopping basket and check out.
There was somebody who was living in Germany, there were people from Seattle, there were people from the East Coast, people from Illinois, people from everywhere. And two of them got married!
Oh my Gosh!
You met Jeff Bezos?
I did, yeah.
Wow. Was he nice?
He kind of flew around the room at top speed, made some very interesting comments which I really can’t repeat because we did say we would keep the meeting confidential, but it was good. And I did notice he has really large feet.
Wow… Is he tall?
Yeah he seems to be tall. I was seated at the time. I’m tall. So I couldn’t measure him against me, but he seemed tall.
When did you start getting competitive about it?
Well I think as soon as I noticed that they were actually doing ranking. And then it got very interesting because there were positive votes and negative votes.
So you’d think that’d be fairly clear cut: “I was helped. I got information that was useful to me,” or “No, I didn’t get any information that was useful to me.” But no! Humans being humans interpret that as “You wrote a helpful review about a book that praises President Trump! Boom! I’m downvoting you!”
Oh I see.
Or “I didn’t like the product and you did—I used this hair cream and my hair fell out.” It was falling out anyway but we won’t talk about that. Or, “You don’t like me because I’m getting ahead of you in the rankings.”
So, negative votes really did count against you. Well once that news got out it was like “Oh I have a competitor who’s near me in the rank and I could be in the top 10? Downvote that sucker!”
Oh wow so it became, like, a competitive sport…
Well like Roller Derby, ya know, you trip somebody. Only in Roller Derby that’s good because that’s what everybody wants to see.
So how does the status of #1 hall of famer from Amazon reviews… figure into your life?
It doesn’t really.
Maybe somebody will surpass me in the future. I’ll still sleep really well at night.
Wow I have to say … you are a shining example of modesty. This is truly just a side-project you do for fun.
And that’s amazing. I feel like so many people in our society are looking to be famous for something or capitalize on their side hustle and you’re just like - “Eh”
The most brilliant thing I think that was said in the last century was Andy Warhol, and it was very far-seeing. And he said that everyone in the future will have 15 minutes of fame. I don’t know if I’m misquoting but it was something like that.
It was one of the most prescient remarks because it was before the internet, it was before instant social media, it was before any of this high hyper communication that we have going on today. And now we talk about the 15 minutes of fame as if it’s a thing. Which it is. So I view this as my 15 minutes of fame, lasting a little longer than 15 minutes but just about as important.