Ralph Moore is a semi-retired teacher from Bishop's Stortford who divides his time between working at his local school and writing reviews for Amazon. In five years he has produced more than 2,600 of them – working out at 1.3 reviews per day – and is in the top 300 of the site's global reviewer rankings. He is one among thousands for whom Amazon reviewing has become a way of life, and he serves as a window into one of the more bewildering, and surprisingly fraught, corners of the internet.
Arriving at his home, I am met by the family's Staffordshire bull terrier Snickers, then by a stack of CDs stretching the height and length of the hall. "Nothing," I am told, compared with the stash Mr Moore keeps upstairs.
Trained as a singer in New York during the 1980s, where he briefly dated soprano Renée Fleming, it was here that Mr Moore, who is 60, developed his understanding of vocal recordings, while harbouring dreams of one day become a writer. "I don't have a novel in me," he says, "but I have always liked the form and style of reviews." The arrival of Amazon allowed him to fulfil his ambitions.
Niche reviewing lends Mr Moore a rare integrity in an online environment built on uncertain credentials. He is a nerd of the highest order, a badge he wears with pride to accompany a smile that is permanently etched into the lines of his face. But for many others, the act of reviewing is less a source of enjoyment than the subject of mild and, in some cases, acute fixation.
Gadgets and tech news in pictures
Gadgets and tech news in pictures
1/23 Bring broken smartphone back to life - as a robot
Do you have an old broken smartphone lying around the house somewhere? Then why not turn it into a robot? That's exactly what YouTuber Mehdi Sadaghdar did in a recent video, after his efforts to bring a destroyed phone back to life disastrously failed. Using the phone's vibrator, a coin battery, a simple switch, a few wires and the bristly part of a toothbrush, he managed to make a simple little toy that can skitter around a tabletop as long as the battery last
2/23 Detachable plane cabin
A Ukrainian inventor has proposed building airliners with detachable passenger cabins that could separate from the rest of the plane and parachute safely to the ground in the event of an emergency
3/23 FA announces it will host the Emirates FA Cup video game tournament
The FA has announced that for the first time ever it will host the inaugural Emirates FA Cup gaming tournament, with video game fans from across the world invited to compete for glory at Wembley Stadium connected by EE. Early rounds will take place in iconic locations in the stadium such as The Royal Box, the changing rooms and the players’ tunnel, with the two finalists set to play the virtual final using Wembley Stadium’s 82 foot screens as they sit in the centre circle. Gamers of varying ability will descend upon Wembley Stadium as the home of football transforms into an epic gaming colosseum set to turn heads and sweat palms in equal measure
4/23 Oculus Rift release date
Oculus has said that it is about to open pre-orders for its Rift virtual reality headset. Some have claimed that the hardware will be the device that will bring virtual reality into the mainstream. And it will start being available from 6 January 2016, the company has said. The company hasn’t said when the headsets will actually start arriving, or how much they will cost. It isn’t clear whether the company intends to announce more details before pre-orders begin
5/23 iPhone stock apps can be removed by just putting them into special folder
A new trick shows a quick way of getting rid of the stock apps that might be cluttering up your iPhone screen — at least for a while. The iPhone comes with a range of apps that are stuck on the phone, and can't be deleted like others. While some are key to the phone — like the Phone app itself — others like Stocks are less well-regarded. But the new trick shows how you can hide those unused stock apps with just a quick trick using some folders
6/23 CES 2016: Four big things set to be revealed
The CES 2016 gadget show is about to kick off, and nearly the entire technology industry has descended on Las Vegas to try and show off the future. Every year, companies and technologists attempt to show that they have seen what’s coming and that they will be there to offer it. Every year, a lot of people get it wrong. This year’s expectations are as big as ever. Every year, CES unofficially gets a big theme that everything’s supposed to be about — this year that’s virtual reality. There is also future for cars, smart home and wearables
7/23 Terrorists could use drones to attack planes and spread propaganda
A government counter-terrorism adviser has warned that terrorists could use commercially available drones to attack passenger planes. Detective Chief Inspector Colin Smith, a security expert and adviser to the Home Office Centre for Applied Science and Technology, warned that small quadcopter drones could easily be used by terrorists for attacks and propaganda purposes
8/23 Goggle-Eyed Lemurs watch TV as part of their reintroduction to the wild
Port Lympne Reserve in Kent, UK, has installed Sony Bravia 4K TVs into its lemur and langur enclosures to show life-like footage to its primates as part of its ‘Back to the Wild’ programme. The charity will trial TV watching on Sony’s 4K TVs as part of this programme in a bid to make langurs more familiar with the new environment
Uber has added a lift-sharing feature to its app in London, allowing people to share their taxi with a stranger in return for a reduced fair. Users will be given 25 per cent off their journey if they say they will let up to two other passengers share their car. Drivers will then receive a message telling them that they’ll be picking up more than one fare, and can plan their route accordingly. London is the second European country to get the feature, after Paris. It was first launched in San Francisco and now most people who use the app do so with the feature
10/23 Attempt to build world’s biggest Rubik’s cube ends in disaster
An attempt to build the world’s biggest Rubik’s cube ended in disaster when the puzzle exploded as it was turned for the first time. One of the masterminds behind Coren Puzzle, a YouTube channel dedicated to custom puzzles, live-streamed the final assembly of the 22x22 cube. The video was the culmination of seven months of construction, which included a month of deliberation on how to build the mechanism at the centre of the device
11/23 New battery chip could let phones charge in minutes
The maker of a new chip claims that it could reduce the charging times of phones to a few minutes, and could prevent dangerous explosions. The tiny chip could be embedded into batteries of all sizes and monitor how healthy and charged they are. That in turn would mean that the batteries would become much safer and quicker to charge, according to the scientist that developed it. Unhealthy lithium-ion batteries can be at risk of exploding or catching fire, as well as gradually losing their capacity so that they run out more quickly. Those problems may become even more important as people move towards electric cars or other vehicles
12/23 Facebook on iPhone gets new fast-loading Instant Articles
If you've noticed articles on Facebook loading a little quicker recently, that's because the new Instant Articles have been launched to all iPhone users. Instant Articles load up to 10 times quicker than a regular article, and have some enriched features - such as unobtrusive autoplay videos, zoomable high-definition images and interactive maps
13/23 Halo 5 patch
Gamers looking forward to playing Halo 5: Guardians on its release on 27 October 2015 will have to wait to download a 9GB day one patch before the game's multiplayer mode can run properly. Those without the patch won't even be able to play multiplayer at all until it's downloaded, in yet another case of a blockbuster game needing a patch on the day of launch
14/23 New HTC Desire 626 handset launch
HTC has launched its latest Desire 626 handset with the Sense 7 software which automatically detects whether you’re at work, at home or on-the-go and alters its theme to suit your location. This advanced technology intelligently analyses your favourite photos to modify the look and feel of your apps, allowing you to modify the colour scheme and backgrounds – the ultimate in personalisation
15/23 Nasa confirms Mars water discovery
Nasa has announced that it has found evidence of flowing water on Mars. Scientists have long speculated that Recurring Slope Lineae — or dark patches — on Mars were made up of briny water but the new findings prove that those patches are caused by liquid water, which it has established by finding hydrated salts.
16/23 Customers wait in line at the Apple Store in Paris to get their hands on the iPhone 6s
Several hundred camped outside the London store in Covent Garden. The 6s will have new features like a vastly improved camera and a pressure-sensitive “3D Touch” display
17/23 Bloodhound SSC: The most powerful ever made is shown off to the public
The car is displayed at Downing Street, when the team visited David Cameron to demonstrate the project
18/23 Lunar eclipse threatens Nasa technology
Artist's rendering of Nasa's LRO spacecraft, which will have to withstand a rapid drop in temperature during an upcoming lunar eclipse that could lead to it shutting down
19/23 Mobile phone bills could rocket up after Ofcom announced that the fees it charges to phone operators will be trebled
The regulator will now charge far more to phone companies for using the mobile spectrum — and though it says that fee will not be passed on to customers, experts have said that prices are likely to go up
20/23 New iPhone 6s rose gold
Apple has released a bright pink new iPhone 6s — likely the only way that you’ll be able to tell that someone has the new handset. The company released the new phone with much fanfare, but almost all of the changes — a new camera and pressure-sensitive display — were on the inside. The only new noticeable addition to the phone’s look is the very pink rose gold colour, and a tiny “S” on the back. The new handsets will be released on September 25
21/23 iPad Pro
Apple has launched a huge new iPad, which it hopes can bring the tablet to offices and designers. But it unveiled it with an Apple-designed stylus — an idea that was famously mocked by late Apple founder Steve Jobs
22/23 Apple TV
Apple has introduced the new Apple TV
23/23 Apple Pencil
Apple has introduced the new Apple Pencil
The most prolific reviewer in Amazon's history, an American called Harriet Klausner, died last year. Submitting more than 31,000 reviews in just over 10 years, Ms Klausner, who lived in Atlanta, had become the target of a campaign to expose instances of suspected "supplier involvement" – companies providing high-ranking Amazon reviewers with free goods, and in some cases payment, in exchange for positive write-ups. Ms Klausner had been accused of selling free products as a secondary source of income, with books supposedly appearing on trading site half.com before their official release.
The story also exposed a culture of savage infighting. Amazon's review function had become a stage for obsessive behaviour, bullying, trolling, sabotage and duplicity. It might sound strange to those on the outside, but as Mr Moore says, the level of hostility waged at certain echelons of this unlikely subculture can take an appalling toll.
"Given what I write about, you would think I'd escape the wrath of trolls," he says. "But it isn't the case. One of mine operates under 40 to 50 different pseudonyms and appears to track my every move."
Amazon has tried to crack down on online bullying and third-party involvement since 2012, reportedly shutting down accounts and deleting en masse reviews that it suspects of being fake (tell-tale signs include users who post too frequent and often overwhelmingly positive reviews). The media interest that followed Klausner's death was likely a catalyst for the 1,114 lawsuits that Amazon filed in 2015 against individuals and organisations involved in such activity.
Amazon also set up a new system for ranking its reviewers. "Top reviewers" are now ranked according to how many other readers find their comments helpful, as opposed to the previous system of rank according to most prolific output.
But that system is also open to abuse, and Amazon's vast, monolithic structure makes policing the review function on any detailed level impossible. Amazon still has a long way to go to monitor the dysfunctional behaviour of some of its most prolific users, some of whom claim that the review service fosters a sense of competition among reviewers for the sake of driving up sales.
Scrolling through the site's top 10 ranked reviewers, few seem to boast any clear areas of interest equivalent to Mr Moore's, and those who do rise to the top appear to do so through an indiscriminate approach of reviewing almost anything – from moisturiser to push-pins to thermal leg warmers.
I spoke to a reviewer who was at one time ranked No 1 in the UK charts. His average score was the lowest of any other reviewer in the Top 10, reflecting a system that he feels is increasingly swayed by the imperative to keep brands and suppliers onside. He said he had thought that the ranking system improved reviewing and promoted impartiality but now was concerned that it encouraged people to post more reviews, with the risk of some people even becoming "addicted".
It was a bold claim and one that seemed mildly hysterical in the context of an e-commerce reviewing platform. Nevertheless his remarks about "addiction" may not be entirely fanciful given the fierce competition I had come to witness. I asked the same reviewer if he feared being toppled from his post. "No, no," he insisted. "It would be a relief, more than anything."
He claimed that he had been targeted with negative votes and abusive messages from fellow reviewers. This is echoed in emails I receive from other users. In the course of a few weeks I receive several emails from different accounts claiming to have ruinous information about one of the other high-ranking reviewers, sometimes accompanied by details about their private life, links to their professional page at the firm where they work, and in-depth speculation about the type of person they might be.
Talk of this reviewer reaches such a cacophony that at one point I am unable to distinguish between emails, as one after another arrives repeating a similar message to the last, sent by a combination of active reviewers and those who admit to having been banned because of their antisocial behaviour.
It's clear that this reviewer is the victim of online abuse, and still unclear if they are also a perpetrator. I come to learn that it is possible to be both. More worryingly, I begin to suspect that the same person might be authoring several of the accounts that start to email me with alarming regularity. They comprise lengthy, frenetic messages sent within minutes of my replies, followed by phone calls, voicemail messages and texts. The repetitive tone indicates either one fanatical voice, or a small cohort whose collective identity is centred around preventing the target from receiving any kind of positive publicity.
"Who are you?" I am asked. "Why are you doing this?"; "I'm not providing you with quotes."; "Don't repeat what I say to anyone else." It's my first taste of online warfare – dramatic and absurd – but nevertheless still mildly intimidating.
I speak to a woman who was ranked in the UK top 10 but has been forced to quit because of what she terms "problems with the system". "She might have just got the wrong end of the stick," says the former No 1, who despite claiming to have never left a negative comment on another user's review, goes on to admit that the woman in question had filed a complaint of harassment against him to Amazon.
Reluctant to meet in person, the woman was unable to elaborate. Still, her reticence and repeated questioning of my motives when we do chat via email suggests that her experiences of reviewing for Amazon haven't been entirely positive. As seems to be the case for a number of people I speak to.
In response to all this, Amazon declined to speak over the phone, providing only a short statement, reiterating their goal of providing customers with useful reviews and attempting to police the system by closing fraudulent or abusive accounts. "We continually evolve the Amazon customer reviews system to make it more helpful to customers and improve the experience over time," the statement read. "We use a number of mechanisms to detect and remove the small fraction of reviews that violate our guidelines, close abusive accounts, and earlier this year filed lawsuits against a number of individuals and businesses who were abusing the system."
In reality, Amazon has very little agency over the politics of its reviewing platform, whose tendency to attract abusive behaviour is likely the result of the unique opportunity it affords people of a certain predisposition. It's a means of self-publicity that allows those so inclined to hide behind the appearance of delivering an important service. Unlike the bare-faced extroversion of other social media platforms, it attracts a unique strand of introverted egotism, one that appreciates attention but not necessarily the more conventional, or transparent, means of obtaining it.
Mr Moore says that ego plays a large part in writing reviews, and a certain narcissism certainly seems to underscore most of the conversations I have. Many of the reviewers I speak to come with prepared answers to my questions. In some cases, they "correct" my line of questioning with their own. Without the same level of self-assuredness as those who occupy the conventional blogosphere and accrue large followings on social media, the online reviewer is an altogether more sensitive breed, and seemingly much less equipped to deal with the inevitable > vitriol that comes with publishing almost anything online.
"It's nice to see yourself build a body of work and to express your opinion about things you care about," says Mr Moore. "But I didn't have the vaguest idea about this strange ranking system when I started and I still have absolutely no interest in being a part of it."
I believe him. Reviewers who echo this sentiment are among the happiest. Clare O'Beara, a tree surgeon and former show jumper from Ireland, got into reviewing as a way of reminding herself about the books she had read and loved.
"Work dried up following the economic crash," she explains. "My husband had high-speed broadband installed soon after, which really changed everything and gave me a new way of discovering and writing about fiction." These days Ms O'Beara, who is 50, receives digital copies of books that she will often read within the space of a day. "No serial killers, no flesh-eating bugs, no zombies," she says of her tightly run ship.
Now an independently published author herself, Ms O'Beara sets her young adult and romance fiction in Ireland, and often within the show-jumping scene. She credits Amazon with providing a platform that has allowed her to develop her writing while meeting like-minded people. Mr Moore also tells me about an elderly woman in Ohio with whom he chats on a regular basis and will often share CDs.
For both reviewers, there's a lifelong interest that pre-dates either the arrival of Amazon, or indeed high-speed internet. Mr Moore is keen to continue a tradition of well-executed, classical music reviews. "An orchestra in full flow is one of the greatest offerings of Western civilisation," he says. "It deserves our full attention: strong writing instead of all this wow-ing, fab-ing, liking and sharing…"
We are seated under the natural light of Mr Moore's double-glazed conservatory, drinking tea, eating cake and doing impressions of young people. The heavy crossfire between Amazon reviewers seems a long way away and yet I wonder whether it is exactly this environment that allows him to main- tain a healthy distance from the petty politics of the scene.
"I didn't want to slip into the trap of getting bored in my retirement," he says. "Of saying, 'I ought not look out of the window this morning for fear of having nothing to do this afternoon'." It's a fun distraction, serving as an afterthought to the bigger concerns of family and a life spent travelling the world.
For Mr Moore, Ms O'Beara and others like them, writing reviews is a way of helping out and, to an extent, showing off. There's an assumption that the internet has opened up conventionally educated pursuits – publishing, broadcasting and yes, reviewing – to all. And it has. But it has not provided the security needed for people to do so with confidence and self-belief. For others, Amazon reviewing has become a worrying marker of self-worth and an unlikely reminder of the tendency for loneliness and low self-esteem in our increasingly digitised world.