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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.