Web 2.0 is supposed to be about flattening culture, about retaking power from the cultural and media elite, and putting it in the hands of peers, equals, friends — think Wikipedia and customer reviews on Amazon. Web 2.0 — it’s social networking, it’s peer-to-peer method of conversation and evaluation, it’s on-demand, niche-oriented nature — is supposed to be a great democratizer. But what if the reality is much murkier than its altruistic ideal? Here‘s an interesting piece from Slate about Amazon’s review ranking system. Hint: It’s not a transparent as you’d think —J.S.

Absent the institutional standards that govern (however notionally) professional journalists, Web 2.0 stakes its credibility on the transparency of users’ motives and their freedom from top-down interference. Amazon, for example, describes its Top Reviewers as “clear-eyed critics [who] provide their fellow shoppers with helpful, honest, tell-it-like-it-is product information.” But beneath the just-us-folks rhetoric lurks an unresolved tension between transparency and opacity; in this respect, Amazon exemplifies the ambiguities of Web 2.0. The Top 10 List promises interactivity—”How do I become a Top Reviewer?”—yet Amazon guards its rankings algorithms closely. A spokeswoman for the company would explain only that a reviewer’s standing is based on the number of votes labeling a review “helpful,” rather than on the raw number of books reviewed by any one person. The Top Reviewers are those who give “the most trusted feedback,” she told me, echoing the copy on the Web site.

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