Public Art of Amazon Reviews

The art and humor from the UC Davis pepper spray incident has certainly made the most of an otherwise awful event. There's no shortage of photoshopped photos:

John Pike

A lot of people have helpfully reviewed a variant of the pepper spray on Amazon.

I casually used this product to try to disperse a small band of non-violent campers who had locked their arms together. Although initially it seemed to be effective, it took two applications! The worst part is that the next day they multiplied exponentially! Now what?

There's a long history of subversive product reviews on Amazon, and it is a weird and growing form of participatory public art. Way back in 1999, mock reviews of Monica Lewinksky's tell-all book made the news. Back then, there were a lot of questions about how it was even possible for Amazon to let these reviews appear on their site. Shouldn't they be doing a better job of scanning them and removing 'unacceptable content'? But people continued messing with the system, and Amazon was forced to stop anonymous reviews and they probably had to implement some other protections as well.

The best reviews of this genre on Amazon are without a doubt all from Family Circus books. This is where there first concerted effort to subvert the review system started, and I think it is where the best work lies. For example, check out the reviews for What Does This Say?, a collection published in 1995:

Proustian introspection with Munch's visual conundrums, July 29, 2002

Yeats once wrote, "None other knows what pleasures man/At table or in bed." Bil Keane, however, seems to have found in his latest 'Family Circus' opus a treasure-chest of pleasures for each and all of us. There are some who chafe at the seeming repetitive themes within Keane's major works; I would respectfully submit that all great stories are about life and death, love and loss, fear and triumph. If not Keane, then so go Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz and Callimachus, too, for good measure. It is not originality that spawns thought and wonderment; it is the vessels of those themes (Billy, Grandma, Barfy, PJ) that inspire and enlighten.

Keane, as carrier of these vessels, reminds us of a truth so eloquently immortalized by Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Some books leave us free and some books make us free." In 'What Does This Say', it is clear that the tome achieves the latter, with gusto and aplomb.

Happiness, November 10, 1999

There is a certain sadness one feels in remembering happy times: turning over the last page of a good novel, and reflecting over the wonders we have just experienced, the characters who have become our friends; discovering old pictures, seeing ourselves in the halcyon throes of youth, silly smiles on our innocent faces; the plangent last notes of a Chopin nocturne, the theme, growing softer and softer now, floating across the room to rest against our face like the rhythmic breaths of a peaceful, sleeping lover. I don't know how: but Keane captures this feeling, this happy sadness - "Oh heavy lightness," as Shakespeare put it. Billy romps around the yard. He runs all over town. His parents are in love. His family is love with itself, each unto each. Can our lives ever be like this? Perhaps not, but we can watch, watch ever single day, and wrap ourself in that happy sadness. And maybe forget, if only for a little while, the way our lives really are, the way they have to be: our heavy lightness. Thanks, Bil Keane, for that, and thanks to Amazon for letting people express themselves. Thank you all.

There is a long history of mocking Family Circus that predates the web. Dysfunctional Family Circus was originally a series of small booklets published in the late 80s/early 90s in San Jose. Apparently they managed to remain anonymous until recently, when they went public after the death of Bil Keane. They succeeded largely because they were anonymous – it's hard to shut down a publishing operation when you can't find the publishers:

When we had boxes of professional looking 12- or 24-pagers, we left handfuls of them of them in public places around San Jose and the valley. Our influence was Jack Chick, the Chino-based comic-book evangelist whose millions of free pamphlets still turn up like lint at the Laundromat…

We knew what we were doing was semilegal, if that. We weren't just skirting certain sacred rules of copyright, we were making jokes about always uneasy subjects like molestation and incest. For some odd reason, this is the first direction a nihilist humorist takes when disfiguring cartoons about a blameless family.

In an 1999 article for, David Cassel interviewed Seth Friedman, then editor of the zine roundup Factsheet Five. Friedman said he expected lawyers coming out of the woodwork when he saw the Dysfunctional Family Circus booklets: "We were kind of surprised at the time to hear that there was no legal action coming down. I think the anonymity of it really helped."

The booklets were published for a couple years until the creators moved on to other things. Then in the mid 90s someone else started up a Dysfunctional Family Circus website (that link is to an archive of the site). It ran for a couple years, and people submitted captions for 500 panels. Eventually it was shut down by a request from King Syndicates – and an apparently amicable phone call between the person running the website and Bil Keane himself. A lot of people were really angry that DFC agreed to shutdown, since it seemed like an acceptable form of parody. Plenty of archives are still available on the web.


Ostensibly, Amazon expects reviews to be pertinent to the product, but any filtering they do is either very basic vulgarity blocking, or it is based on actual requests from the manufacturer of the product. So some of these reviews have been removed, but others have lived on, as seen in this reply to a snarky review of I Had A Frightmare! > As wonderful as this review is, it makes me sad to think about how similarly sarcastic reviews used to be deleted by Amazon–about this very book, in fact – when some of us wrote them in the early 2000s. But, hey, yours is better than mine was anyway, so more power to you.

The world of Amazon product reviews is its own very bizarre ecosystem. As you flip through them, eventually you find the Top Reviewers page. And you'll find Harriet Klausner, who reviewed 24 books today – so far! Her grand total for reviews is almost 26,000. She has been profiled in the Wall Street Journal, was listed as one of the "top 15 web generation's movers and shakers" in Time, and there is an entire blog devoted to attacking her reviews – which seems fair, since she's reading books at a ridiculous rate, and quite possibly plagiarizing reviews.

You have to wonder why anyone would become a prolific reviewer on Amazon. It seems like the main motive is to become a member of the invite-only Amazon Vine program, where Amazon sends you a couple of items you choose each month in return for your reviews of those products. The program has been criticized all over the place for probably being a little too shadowy and underhanded.

Here's some other Family Circus books with good reviews:

There's also funny reviews on Amazon for speaker cables, the famous Three Wolf Moon T-Shirt, a book called Hgiyiyi (written by jjjj), and don't forget Birth Control is Sinful in the Christian Marriages and also Robbing God of Priesthood Children!!.

You also have to wonder why Amazon allows such bullshit products to remain on their site. The speaker cables are particularly heinous, since no one is going to spend $8500 on a cable, especially after reading the mocking commentary. I assume that Amazon figures the funny fake reviews are driving as much traffic as the good actual reviews.

In a twist on this idea, here's the story of people subverting a McDonalds question and answer site in the UK with some pretty awesome questions.

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