With customers like these ...

  • Article by: JOHN OLSON
  • Updated: April 1, 2009 - 6:15 PM


I just bought an Amazon Kindle. It’s the slim electronic reader that puts the unabridged diary of our species in the palm of your hand.
In a device about the size of one copy of “The Wasteland,” you can store the equivalent of 200 copies of “Ulysses” (plus have it read to you, although not explained). Forget about every other marvel of our age; the Kindle alone should have us running into the streets, scanning the skies for the flaming chariots of the Rapture.

And despite all that, I almost didn’t buy one. Amazon almost talked me out of it. Every time I went to make the purchase, I was stopped in my tracks by scathing reviews beneath the product description.

Not long ago, marketing was designed to woo us, to make us forget about the steep price, the eventual obsolescence, the batteries not being included. Now, progressive marketers encourage us to make our own decisions — and then tell the multitudes.

Despite Amazon’s speedy “1-Click” buying, I couldn’t help scanning the reviews every time I visited. Given the choice, you’ll do this before committing $359 and your future book budget to a proprietary device you’ve never seen.

It starts with the “tags,” keywords people use to identify the product. In the top 10: “94 people tagged this product 'kindle swindle.’” … “87 people tagged this product 'defective by design.’”

So you can scan 1,243 user reviews, selecting them by their star rating, from one to five. Are you going to choose the five-star review? Are you?

Since this isn’t Twitter, I’ll answer for you: No, you won’t select the five-star review. You just read Amazon’s glowing self-review. Now you want to hear the downside of spending $359. You’re no dummy. You read books.

So you click on “1-star” reviews and find convincing arguments why Kindle buyers are intellectually just above mollusks. That creates a hurdle even 1-Click buying can’t surmount.

And it’s not just Amazon. Apple recently sent an e-mail about a new product. When you clicked through to the product site, the top-rated review came up. I paraphrase: This gadget is horse manure. Don’t be a sucker. Buy the competitor’s product.

So why are they talking us out of buying their products? Is it some idealistic attempt to prove the value of participatory democracy? Are they kicking themselves, saying: What were we thinking?

Facebook has to be. Every time it tries to implement a model that might pay the tab at Palo Alto Bicycles, the throng rises up and founder Mark Zuckerberg has to apologize: Sorry, everybody. Sorry about that “trying to make a living” stuff.

These companies have bought into the “wisdom of crowds,” an idea popularized by the New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki. The idea is that it isn’t Jobs or Bezos or Zuckerberg but the masses who get us there. There are a million hands on the wheel, and somehow we’re staying within the guardrails.

We’re not just consumers anymore — demographic units to be persuaded by powerful interests. We’re the caucus of free enterprise, and so far we’re an unruly crowd but not a mob. Not yet.

Who knows where it’s going, but one thing is clear. Somebody thinks we’re smart, honest and decent enough to be trusted. That may be an idea more powerful than an e-reader. It, too, should have us scanning the skies.

You can review this product right now on StarTribune.com. We’ll see if that’s a good thing or not.

John Olson is an advertising executive in Minneapolis.

 

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