Monday, November 21, 2005

Amazon as a Model for Open WorldCat

Numerous library bloggers rightly hold up Flickr and as models of social webware. They have created large communities of users already and are growing steadily. It seems less noticed in recent blogging what the commercial giant Amazon has done. I only noticed because I am studying the user-contribution features being tested by Open WorldCat. The idea apparently comes from Amazon.

I have used Amazon for years, of course, to identify books and media. Its search function seems more forgiving of mispelled names and keywords than most library catalogs and book jobbers databases. When readers come to the reference desk with the skimpiest clues to finding the books they seek, I often use Amazon and identify the books. Long ago I noticed that Amazon let readers voice their opinions, but the reviews seemed rather off-the-cuff and insubstantial. Most submissions seemed little more than a few sentences saying "I love" or "I hate" the books. I would turn to them only when helping book club hosts who were finding few substantial reviews of their assigned books.

Amazon reviews have matured. Through the years the company has enticed its customers to write by improving the service and offering them recognition. Each reviewer gets a profile, a home for her reviews, and a ranking in the community of readers. I suspect many readers who find too few opportunities to discuss their reading in their physical worlds have turned to Amazon and found new friends. Reviewers get to add links to the other reviewers they admire in their profiles. They can also create lists of their favorite books and media. Some people have embraced the service and have freely given hundreds of reviews to the company, not because they love the corporation, but because they feel they are connecting with other readers. Harriet Klauser is the current number one reviewer with 10,207 reviews and over 64,000 positive votes from readers.

The quality of some Amazon reviews is far better than five years ago. There are still some quick reader opinions, but there are also lengthy, well composed reviews. To get a mix of both extremes and to see debates that take place among the reviews, look at the reviews for My Detachment by Tracy Kidder.

In the past two weeks I have put six of my reviews that I had written for this blog and had posted to Open WorldCat onto Amazon to see how the service works. (Eric Lease Morgan said on the LITA Blog to send content out to many venues.) Three of my reviews have already been read and rated. As of this morning I rank 514,861th as a reviewer. (By afternoon I had risen to 219,711th.) That means there are over half a million people who have submitted reviews. That's impressive. I doubt any library has ever gotten one tenth of that response to its efforts to inspire readers to share their thoughts about books with other readers.

Not everything works well at Amazon. I completed the profile form twice and lost portions of it both times. After two weeks you can not find my reviews through the People Search either. Finding the People Search is not easy; it does not appear on any page that I can see until I click to see someone's reviews or profile. When you do find it, you can search a name to find reviews, profiles, and wishlists.

Amazon's review service may in some cases be too successful. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood has over 1100 customer submitted reviews. What hope would you have that anyone would ever see what you wrote again? You would be much better writing about less popular items or submitting to Open World Cat.

Open WorldCat has a long way to go to match Amazon and will need the help of a lot of librarians. OCLC obviously does have hope. Look at the webpage about user-contributed content. The mock record has seventeen reviews. Dream no small dreams!

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