July 28, 2015

Two for Tuesday: Awesome Show, Great Job


zonetheoryTopics discussed: The 1990s Chicago Bulls, Nike Air Pippen IIs, NAFTA, Doc Martens, Michael Schaub, Jesse Montgomery, Ryan Holiday, Mein Kampf, Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, The Daily Show, The Onion, blurbs, Amazon, conspiracies, Amazon reviews, Tuscan Whole Milk, David Brooks, Ziggy, blurbs, Gary Shteyngart, jail, Jeff Bezos, Donald Trump

Alex: What time is it?

Mark: Is this a trick question?


Any dogs in the house?

Mark: Is this another trick question?

Alex: Woof woof woof woof!

Mark: . . .

Alex: Not a 90s Chicago Bulls fan I see.

Mark: Hmm. I remember coveting these Nike Air Pippen IIs, but other than that, no—not particularly.

But wait, before we fall victim to nineties nostalgia (remember NAFTA?????? That was so nineties!!!!), let’s talk about a very crucial error we made in last week’s column. Alex, would you like to tell our readers about that error?

Alex: I had those shoes!!!!!! Bow down before me, Mark.

On a related note, I refuse to acknowledge any error. Your job in Two for Tuesday is to apologize. My job is living and fast and leaving a good looking corpse.

Mark: Much as I’d like to argue, you’re right. Anyone who ever had a pair of Nike Air Pippen IIs is obviously a cool, hard-partying, fast-living guy. Meanwhile, I wore Doc Martens, and much as I’d like to think otherwise, Doc Martens were not cool by the time I was wearing them. Though there was only one store in Atlanta that carried them, so that was cool. But that store had a location in a strip mall near my house, so . . . again, not cool.

Anyway, because Alex won’t do it, I must apologize—on behalf of the entire Two for Tuesday family—to Michael Schaub. We failed to mention Michael in our column last week, and that was a grievous oversight. As soon as we figure out how to most effectively and dramatically atone for this act of cruelty, we will begin atoning immediately. For now, I’m sorry, and if Alex ever took those damned sunglasses off, you’d see real pain in his eyes. But you can’t, because he always keeps them on.

Okay, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about one of our favorite topics: Amazon reviews! Alex, I don’t know anyone more obsessed with Amazon reviews than you, and I’d like to think that the feeling is mutual. Is the feeling mutual, or do I have to kill one of your friends?

Alex: Kill Jesse Montgomery.

Mark: Done.

Alex: Amazon reviews are fascinating! I think that they actually sell books, which is an opinion I hate having, partly because I think it’s very stupid, and partly because I think Ryan Holiday convinced me that they matter and . . . ugh. Not good!

Before we get too deep into this though, I want to also say that I love Amazon reviews because I think that they are hilarious. Hilarious! Ashley Feinberg’s overview of Mein Kampf reviews for Gawker provides sufficient evidence to prove this assertion, but you also stumbled across some good Amazon reviews recently, didn’t you Mark?

Mark: I did indeed! For months I’ve been looking forward to reading Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s Tim and Eric’s Zone Theory: 7 Easy Steps to Achieve a Perfect Life, a book-length parody of Scientology. (A reductive description of a very insane and very dirty book, but never mind.) I’m a longtime fan of Tim and Eric’s work—particularly their insights into celery—and this book is their take on one of my favorite genres—the full-color parody book. (The greatest example of this is probably the Daily Show’s America: The Book, which is funnier than the Daily Show, and The Onion’s Our Dumb World is a worthy competitor, too. Also, I don’t know if “full-color parody book” is really a genre, but let’s say that it is.)

Anyway, one of the first things I noticed about Tim and Eric’s Zone Theory were the blurbs. Here’s a sampling:

Zone Theory helped me to become a happier, healthier, more confident man. I recommend it to everyone I meet. Buy it now.”
—David Blaine, Zone Plane 8

Zone Theory helped me to become a happier, healthier, more confident man. I recommend it to everyone I meet. Buy it now.”
—John C. Reilly, Zone Plane 8

Zone Theory helped me to become a happier, healthier, more confident man. I recommend it to everyone I meet. Buy it now.”
—Marilyn Manson, Zone Plane 8

I. . . recommend the Zone Theory. . .”
—Lena Dunham

Zone Theory helped me to become a happier, healthier, more confident man. I recommend it to everyone I meet. Buy it now.”
—Richard Linklater, Zone Plane 8

Zone Theory helped me to become a happier, healthier, more confident man. I recommend it to everyone I meet. Buy it now.”
—Flea, Zone Plane 8

“I . . . recommend the Zone Theory. . . ”
—Chelsea Peretti

This is a truly brilliant use of blurbs. It might win the gold medal for clever blurb use, a title previously held by America: The Book, which included this blurb on the back:

“Thank you for your manuscript. We regret it does not suit our needs at the current time.”
—Jason Hay, editor, Little, Brown and Company

What a blurb!

But then, having looked around the Zone Theory page on Amazon, I noticed something else. Nearly all the customer reviews stuck to the same template:


There are literally dozens more where that came from!

It’s one thing to come up with creative blurbs, but customer reviews are something else—they’re user-generated, and one doesn’t expect to find reviews so on-message, even if that message is totally ridiculous.

At first I thought that Tim and Eric had asked their fans to submit these reviews, and I was excited to discover the World’s Greatest Amazon Reviews Conspiracy. Authors asking their readers to write fake reviews! Readers writing fake reviews! Some third thing that would make this truly salacious! Could you imagine the uproar, Alex??

But then you and I looked around and discovered that Tim and Eric hadn’t, it seemed, given anyone any marching orders. Their loyal fans had simply organized themselves into Tim and Eric-supporting Review-Bots and enacted one of the book’s key jokes in the Amazon reviews section. Many of them were first-time reviewers, and not all of them had made a “Verified Purchase.” So it’s not unreasonable to think that some of these reviews are fake—or rather, doubly fake: they’re not earnest reviews of the book, and in some cases, the reviewers haven’t even read the book at all.

Which is fine, of course! This is way more fun than a collection of straightforward reviews, and indeed, as I wrote in April, the infamous Tuscan Whole Milk meme—which depends entirely on fake reviews—is “probably the only good thing Amazon has ever given the world.” Still, isn’t there something weird about all of this? As we’ve discussed, Amazon has a very contradictory relationship with the reviews it features on its site. In April, it filed a lawsuit against four companies accused of planting fake reviews in exchange for money, and I found this lawsuit somewhat questionable. I’m sorry to quote myself twice in the span of a single paragraph (who am I, you?), but this is what I wrote: “Amazon knows that its lack of verification encourages people to contribute reviews in the first place—the unhealthy ecosystem is its own, and it has been created with great intentionality.”

So . . . does the Tim and Eric Amazon Review Non-Controversy tell us anything about the Amazon review ecosystem? There’s no great conspiracy at work, which, again, is too bad, but have the two comedians revealed the arbitrariness of the company’s review policy even as they’ve successfully promoted their product? Share your insights with me, Alex!

Alex: My biggest response to this is “haha I think this is funny lol,” which is probably not the stuff of great columns (though it would improve all of David Brooks’s columns if all he wrote was that + a Ziggy comic).

Mark: Indeed, David Brooks is the Ziggy of New York Times op-ed columnists, if Ziggy were going through a mid-life crisis.

Alex: Yes. Anyway, the internet is a great place (no it’s not) for stuff like this, which combines participating in a joke while communicating that you got the joke—which mostly seems to be happening here. Thankfully it’s a good joke, and also a good sendup of blurbs, which are simultaneously important and inherently manipulative and, most of all, very silly and dumb. The best thing about this is that all of the customer reviews are overwhelmingly marked as being “helpful.” (I marked as many as I could as being helpful—always doing my part.)

Because these customer reviews add up to a pretty good joke, I’m disinclined to spend too much time thinking about them because 1. overthinking usually ruins jokes and 2. I’m too young to wear elbow patches to work every day and pipes are gross, and also I like laughing and don’t want to stop doing it. (Laughing is great and fun.)

But I do think you’re right that something interesting is happening here. The weird thing about blurbs is that they seem to actually work if the blurber is famous and targeted enough (i.e. if their audience intersects with the audience for this book). A blurb deployed this way is far more likely to work than a blurb that is inherently appealing. Tim and Eric are geniuses and their blurbs reveal the two fundamental truths of blurbing: 1. Who writes the blurb matters, but what the blurb actually says doesn’t at all (See: Shteyngart, Gary) and 2. A gimmicky blurb is almost always better than a regular one (See: Shteyngart, Gary). I hope I never write the word “blurb” this many times in a paragraph ever again. If I do, please put me in a jail.

What’s more interesting is that Tim and Eric’s fans independently did something similar, but to Amazon reviews. Amazon reviews are a total and utter sham, which is one of the many reasons why I find it so funny that people buy them (even though that is also the saddest thing ever. It’s really sad! But because it’s also super pathetic it’s really funny. I am a cold and cruel person). The reviews for Zone Theory are clearly not “helpful” and obviously aren’t original . . . and yet they live. That may be because Amazon has a sense of humor (and they might! Have you heard Jeff Bezos laugh? He loves to laugh!), but I think what’s more to the point is that Amazon doesn’t really give a hoot about any of that—what they care about is if reviews help sell books. (Which they do.) The reviews for Zone Theory undoubtedly help sell this book—this book isn’t for the unconverted, and the reviews help create an in-group mentality that ultimately works to the book’s advantage (I think). So they stay. Obviously fake reviews don’t help sell anything, so they go. This is simple, childish logic, but I haven’t seen anything to convince me that it’s not what’s happening. Am I wrong?

Mark: Sorry, I stopped reading at “please put me in a jail.” Actually, no, I stopped reading at “haha I think this is funny lol,” which is the kind of incisive comment that keeps readers like Michael Schaub coming back. (Michael, please come back. We’re really very sorry.)

So, just to be clear, we’ve concluded that Amazon reviews are a sham but can be good, and that Tim and Eric’s readers are smart and wrote silly reviews that may help sell the book, even though fake reviews don’t usually work. Am I getting this right?

Alex: Yes.

Mark: Well, I’m thrilled to be providing our readers with this kind of sophisticated insight. This is Two for Tuesday at its very best.

I’ll add one thing: we tend to think of things like Amazon reviews (fake, bought, or otherwise) as monolithic, and of course they’re not. That’s what makes them interesting. It’s why Jesse Montgomery enjoyed thinking about them—until I killed him. On Amazon you’ll find Astroturfed reviews of books by left-wing activists, earnest reviews of novels that changed readers’ lives, proper art projects (which is what the Tim and Eric thing basically is—it’s about as close as one can get to Tuscan Whole Milk without being actually fake), quick and thoughtless evaluations, and even reviews by serious writers and critics who want to participate in the discussion—even if that discussion is taking place at Amazon, where no good things happen.

Which is to say that we probably shouldn’t think of the Amazon reviews as a review at all—it’s a phenomenon that occasionally overlaps with straightforward book criticism and occasionally overlaps with a kind of customer service but really isn’t one or the other. If it has any deeper meaning, the Tim and Eric non-controversy shows how capacious (or, depending on your perspective, manipulable) this thing can be.

Alex: They exist to legitimize the product being sold. These reviews are great because they don’t do that.

Zone Theory helped me to become a happier, healthier, more confident man. I recommend it to everyone I meet. Buy it now.

Also Two For Tuesday is off for the month of August. See you losers in September. Can’t wait to come back and see Donald Trump still leading the Republican polls, which he definitely still will be doing! There is literally no chance that this will not be true! I am investing all my money in Trump, baby. Viva Two for Tuesday, Viva Trump! Fuck the haters and the losers!

Mark: Indeed. And nothing says August and fucking the haters more than Television. Be sure to listen to “Marquee Moon” and “See No Evil” all month long.