Network: Brought to book by spoof

A practical joke played on e-commerce venture Amazon could restore its reputation.

For the past month, e-mails with the subject heading "Check this out before Amazon gets wind of it!" have been flying back and forth across the UK and North America. The messages point readers to a series of spoof book reviews posted on Internet bookseller Amazon's website. "The funniest spoofs of reviews I've ever read," goes the message. "But don't wait too long. Amazon's sure to kill them."

The spoofs appear alongside listings for Bil Keane's Family Circus books, a series of cartoon collections for children. Every Amazon book listing is accompanied by a customer comments section; browsers can read customer comments while deciding whether to buy a book - or, if they've already read the book, they can write their own review.

Contributing a review is easy: customers read guidelines ("The best reviews include not only whether you liked or disliked a book, but also why"), then fill out a review form which provides space for a short review, a rating of one to five stars, and an e-mail address. The reviews - which tend to be positive ("stunningly honest and engrossing" reads a customer review of Hanif Kureishi's controversial novel Intimacy) - are posted to the site two days later.

Sent from false e-mail addresses, the spoofs parody serious reviews. Keane's books are meant for four- to eight-year-olds, but the mock-serious, Oprah-meets-the-TLS tone of the spoofs is clearly aimed at adults: "Keane's compelling portrait of a dysfunctional American family deftly reveals the layers of bruised egos and the unquenchable thirst for love and acceptance in their daily everydrama"; "The REAL challenge in this insightful and philosophical text is looking past the obvious Masonic references and deep, secretive, Objectivist undertones, so that we may apply Billy's dotted-line adventures to our own mundane existences".

Many poke fun at academic criticism: "Herr Doktor Professor Juergen Geissler (geilerschwanz@uni.berlin.de) from Treptow, Berlin, Bundesrepublik Deutschland" and "Dr Michael Torrez (coalcracker@univ-firenze.it) from Univ of Dikplayzina, Firenze" award Keane's books five stars. "Sir Arthur HCW Cholmondeley-Upham-Lee, OBE (twitdon@oxford.uk.edu) from Oxford University, UK" writes that Keane is "a thoroughgoing student of such Christian existentialists as Teilhard de Chardin and Marcel ... I have added several of these volumes to my various syllabi at the University."

Some reviews parody the light, fluffy tone of some customer comments ("Un Poodle Francais from Ville de Poodle, La France" is a reviewer), while others satirise actual people. Reviewer "lovecraft@aol.com" adopts the persona of writer HP Lovecraft, while "billgates@microsoft.net from Earth" writes: "I laughed, I cried and then I nearly died. This shows how much extra time I have on my hands. I am writing this because I have nothing better to do."

So far, Amazon hasn't "killed" the reviews, and it's no wonder the mock- reviewers sound gleeful: they've managed to infiltrate and poke fun at the core content of one of the most successful e-commerce ventures. Amazon's success is based not only on its enormous selection (4.7 million books, CDs and games), but on its image as a community rather than corporation, where booklovers can meet and freely swap ideas. Amazon has crafted this reputation by including original content like author interviews, editorial recommendations, and, yes, customer comments. But recently Amazon's bookish image has been challenged by its forays into the online pharmacy and auction businesses. And last month faithful customers were shocked when The New York Times revealed that Amazon accepted money from publishers to subsidise highlighted and favourably reviewed titles - a practice that undermined the force of its editorial recommendations. (Amazon now discloses when it has accepted publishers' money.) The last thing the damaged company needs now is a practical joke disparaging its core content.

So why hasn't Amazon taken the Keane reviews off the site? It's certainly had the chance:every customer review is read and edited by Amazon's editorial team before it is posted. "A review should be acceptable to anyone who wants to see the site," explains a spokesperson for Amazon.co.uk. "As long as a review is not unfair, derogatory, bigoted or very badly written, then it's fair game."

So far, leaving the Keane reviews alone hasn't hurt Amazon, and has even generated positive publicity. The reviews, writes columnist Josh Glenn in e-zine FEED, exemplify "the sort of democratic activity that could restore ... to Amazon its anarchic integrity". By endorsing free speech - even at the cost of ridicule - Amazon is rebuilding its reputation as a free-thinking, democratic community. And if just a few of the people checking out the Keane reviews decide to purchase a book, it may even make a profit from the joke.

Arts and Entertainment

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain's daughter Frances Bean Cobain is making a new documentary about his life

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp

TV Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' near to camp

Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital