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The Secret Life of Amazon's Vine Reviewers

The New York Times logo The New York Times 1/29/2019 By JOHN HERRMAN

A small and powerful society of Viners create Amazon’s reality. But is there such a thing as too much free stuff?

A U.P.S. driver once said the house set his delivery record: 32 packages in one day. There have been bigger days since, and the burden is now spread across three carriers. Most of it falls to the local postal carriers. They used to make the rounds in a sedan until the sheer volume of packages delivered up the hill each week required them to upgrade to a truck. The boxes have slowed lately, but something arrives almost every day.

The boxes crowd the porch — this is up in a tranquil stretch of the Blue Ridge Mountains — before gradually making their way inside, past the patio table, which came from a box, and its four chairs, from boxes all. The living room was largely furnished from the boxes: a couch, an end table, rugs, the love seat. In the bedroom, the boxes account for artwork, linens, a clothes rack, the mattress and several pillows, of course. The extra window unit air-conditioners: white boxes from brown boxes. The kitchen is stocked from the flow of boxes — the knife block, the espresso machine, the convection oven — as are the home’s closets.

The office is almost all box — furniture, printers (regular and 3-D), computer, at least 13 hard drives and four routers. The art on the walls came this way; the new shelves installed to store the items from the porch boxes came through porch boxes. The camera system through which the porch boxes are surveilled was itself unpacked from a porch box. The worry is thieves, though the camera mostly catches wildlife: rabbits, turkeys and mice, with an elk every once in a while, and, so far, one coyote and a bear.

K.T., 54, shares this home, and these boxes, with her husband and two dogs. She’s a volunteer animal rescue transport driver and a former proofreader, but now much of her time and attention is devoted to box intake and processing. She does most of her shopping online, she said; the nearest town only has about a thousand residents, and it’s usually more convenient to order. That, and the fact the vast majority of these boxes arrive free of charge courtesy of Amazon itself.

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K.T. is an Amazon “Vine Voice.” Amazon sends her free stuff; she, as an established and trusted reviewer, tests it out and writes reviews. During a recent gathering she joked with family that her spouse was wearing Vine socks, Vine jeans, a Vine shirt, Vine underwear, and had on Vine cologne. There are thousands of Vine Voices, but K.T. is almost certainly among the most prolific. Over the years, she has passed in and out of Amazon’s overall Top 100 reviewer rankings. The Times agreed to not identify her. For Vine reviewers, identifying information — names, email addresses, websites — can be construed as a solicitation for free products from non-Vine sources, which Amazon can decide is grounds for removal from the program.

And K.T. takes her responsibilities seriously, dedicating time to each new item that emerges from the boxes and writing reviews that are succinct but complete. She helps run an online community for other Vine Voices — there’s another Viner in her town; she traveled out of state to meet the co-moderator of her community, whom she considers a close friend — and has reshaped her life around the program. “It’s only been about three years,” she said, “so I’m sort of new.”

The Secrets of Stuff

If you invested $5,000 in Amazon in August of 2007, when Vine was announced, your stock would now be worth more than $100,000. If, instead, you had started reviewing your Amazon purchases, built a reputation as a reliable reviewer, secured an invite to the Vine program, kept your head down, filed your assignments and avoided the occasional purges of reviewers, your take-home total might today exceed that number, although in somewhat less liquid forms: five vacuums here; 14 hard drives there; some laptops and cellphones; Bluetooth speakers, and headphones, and headsets, and, well, pretty much anything with Bluetooth, so much Bluetooth, mouthful after mouthful of blue teeth.

The program was intended, in the company’s telling, to help its vendors “generate awareness for new and prerelease products” by “connecting them with the voice of the Amazon community.” Then, as now, but especially then, the Amazon reviewer community was at turns close-knit and competitive.

“Being part of the Vine program at the very beginning gave me a sense of duty,” said Diana de Avila, who had already been writing Amazon reviews since the mid ’90s. “I thought, oh my gosh, this large, emerging company is just growing by leaps and bounds, and they wanted me to be part of this apparatus,” she said.

In 2007 it was, as apparatuses go, primitive. On the third Thursday of each month, Ms. de Avila would take a seat at her computer a little before 3 p.m. and start refreshing, knowing that around the country, other Viners were doing the same. A monthly list would be posted to an internal portal and go out in an email as well. There might be a dozen items, each in limited quantities. The lists were heavy on books at first. Many of them would be gone in seconds, she remembered, and there were often technical difficulties. “That was the excitement of it,” she said.

“I was pretty quick at the draw, so I got some pretty good stuff,” Ms. de Avila said. “I got multiple cameras, video cameras, probably more than a dozen.”

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Users could then go to a special Vine-only forum on Amazon’s site and discuss what they’d gotten. It was a fairly small world — there weren’t very many products or very many reviewers and also there were limits on how many users could claim. The forum thrived and suffered in ways that were characteristic of online communities of the time: There were habitual posters, show-offs, trolls and critics, and of course a steady supply of know-nothing newbies, newly invited by Amazon. The company itself was nearly silent: Aside from occasional announcements and necessary interventions, it left the forum to the Vine reviewers. “I sometimes think that maybe Amazon was reading,” Ms. de Avila said.

The program swelled in both membership and inventory. A monthly email from 2011, for example, contained over 400 items, including a baby food maker, a line of Taco Bell sauces, a package of sticky notes, a dispenser for sticky notes, a few wall mounts for TVs and books, lots of books. The letters “USB” appear 42 times.

Vine was a relic of an older web for a long time. Email newsletters! User forums! But in 2016, the service received a substantial overhaul. The emails and posts were replaced with a pair of feeds: One was targeted to each individual Vine user, based on preferences and shopping habits, and the other was visible to everyone. Old limits were lifted: You could now review as many products as you wanted.

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In 2015, Amazon had begun asking Vine reviewers for their tax information, which meant that, over a certain value, Vine products were no longer free, really. Review products count as income; their tax value, as calculated by Amazon, can be a major factor in which products Vine reviewers choose to have delivered. The most prolific reviewers have tax burdens in the tens of thousands of dollars. There are rules, loosely enforced but taken seriously. Amazon-branded products belong to you immediately; other products can be recalled up to six months later, and therefore can’t be sold or given away. (This rarely happens, if ever. The boldest Viners sell products right away, while some become extremely generous with charity. A super-Viner almost doesn’t have a choice, for space reasons alone.)

“We ask Vine Voices not to resell products for six months,” Angie Newman, an Amazon spokeswoman, said in an email. “After that, the product is theirs and they can use it or dispose of it as they see fit.”

Many donate enough to alleviate their tax burdens, but no more, so as not to attract the wrong kind of attention to their arrangements, unique as they are, and lacking anything in the way of guidance from Amazon itself.

Now Vine was recreated in the image of the internet around it — an internet of interminable feeds and customized content, an endless space that can be checked and rechecked but never quite finished, demanding as much as you’re willing to give it. If Facebook’s feed let you gorge on birth announcements and conspiracy theories, and Instagram’s on photos of dogs and, I guess, mimetic desire, Vine’s feed — similarly aware of your habits and always refreshed — opened the door to actual things, distributed in the manner of content.

Inside the Big Mystery Box

While most of us experience Amazon’s surveillance with a mixture of annoyance and bemusement — you are never allowed to forget what items you’ve looked at on Amazon, at least not until you buy them — Vine reviewers have learned to exploit it. “You can try to signal to it,” K.T. said. “I searched for drones, hoping they would show up in my targeting.” (No luck yet.) Sometimes Vine’s behaviors give the impression of something far less intelligent: Some Viners described getting clothing in more-or-less “random” sizes.

In 2017, Amazon removed the Vine discussion forums from its site; Amazon didn’t share its reasons with Vine reviewers. (Logged-in reviewers still see a link to the forums on their profiles, but it leads nowhere.) To the extent there is a coherent Vine community still, it is spread across multiple private groups on Goodreads, the book review site owned by Amazon, and smaller communities further afield, on Reddit and Craigslist. They are throwbacks to the old Vine, and the old web: There are groups and splinter groups, cross-forum enemies, reputations and rivalries.

Mostly, though, the forums serve the same needs that the old official forum did. They’re a place where people who are part of this odd program that they’re not supposed to talk about can figure out what’s going on in a system that changes constantly without notice, in the shadow of the company that is both an intense part of their lives and outwardly indifferent to their existence.

In a Craigslist forum, for example, users spent recent weeks commiserating about their suddenly shrinking review queues. (They were restored shortly after, but posters weren’t happy with how: “Mine has been restocked as well, but with things I don’t need,“ said one. “That’s it — junk.” Another user warned others off a particular brand of chocolates he’d gotten for his wife: “They weren’t even edible and had a strange odor.” They discussed a recent investigation by the website The Verge into Amazon’s treatment of sellers (“great reading and it confirms everything we already know!”). They attempted to troubleshoot minor issues (Amazon’s brand Solimo, which makes a variety of household goods, seems to break the Vine interface for some reason) and major issues (a “technical error” reported last year, which exposed some Amazon users’ data, including email addresses, has created a huge problem for affected Vine reviewers: a flood of emails from overseas sellers attempting to bribe them for reviews and, in some cases, threatening to falsely tell Amazon that they’re doing it anyway). The forum has a resident tax expert.

They talk about the weather, on planets Earth and Amazon. Reviewers are sometimes removed from the program without notice, or are reinstated. Sometimes they’re told they broke rules they didn’t believe they’d broken; other times, forum users are left to assume they’ve been culled by some sort of automated system designed to root out fraud, only to be brought back days later, after appeal.

They’re also friends. K.T. described the old Vine forums as cliquish, and then, in their final days, gripped, like so many communities online, by politics. “They were all liberal, and a few of us weren’t, so they made an assumption that I support Trump,” she said, and that was that. She helps moderate one of the Goodreads forums now. It’s calmer. “‘What’s your life like?’ ‘What do you do?’ Then general happy stuff,” she said. “There’s a photo gallery thread for a member who is a great photographer.”

“We are the same as any quilter’s group, or book club, that meets or chats about whatever common interests they enjoy,” she said. These are her Vine people. The other Goodreads forum has its Vine people too, and they all have Vine, and Amazon has them all.

For the Brands

“From a sky-high view, the reason Amazon is so successful is that it’s easy for people to find things on Amazon,” said Rachel Johnson Greer, a former Amazon employee of eight years, and currently the managing partner of Cascadia Seller Solutions, a firm that helps sellers on Amazon’s Marketplace.

But the pool of products Amazon now draws from is, in most categories, large and not readily countable. And so, as with Google search results, getting your product on the first page of results for a specific term — or giving it a chance of floating upward in one of the site’s countless recommendation or discovery mechanisms — is crucial. In its earliest days, Amazon operated in plainer view: Products were categorized, then found by customers, then reviewed by customers. The good stuff ranked higher, the junk drifted out of view. Now, when customers don’t just have countless alternatives to a particular product but multiple ways on the site to buy the same product, even a potentially beloved product needs a leg up.

“It’s a little bit of a Catch-22,” said Ms. Greer. “To show up in search, you have to have been clicked. To have been clicked, you have to show up in search.” Your listings are more visible if people have clicked on and purchased your products.

Handily, Amazon is also an advertising platform — you can pay for people to see your product when they search for or look at certain things. But the economics are punishing. “If there are no reviews, people won’t click,” said Ms. Greer. “If you have a product that dips below 3.5 or 4 stars, your advertising cost doubles or triples.” To get the same clicks, you have to do a lot more advertising. People aren’t as willing to convert when there are lower reviews, and they’re not as likely to click in the first place. To get the clicks, you need to bid higher.”

In that case, you would turn to other methods. You can advertise on Google. (Expensive.) You can hire influencers. (Works for some, useless for others; risky.) Or you can consider Vine.

Participation in Vine is usually negotiated as part of vendor contracts with Amazon, according to the company. “If you start off with 30 four-star reviews, you have a leg up on everybody,” Ms. Greer said. Amazon has been testing Vine for Marketplace members — semi-independent sellers who now account for a majority of Amazon’s total sales — who, in 2016, were prohibited from soliciting “incentivized reviews” on their own. The initial price quoted to sellers was $1,000 per unique catalog item.

In her view, this strategy is effective and, for the right products, economical. Amazon is a largely click-driven ecosystem, and reviews are a great way to get clicks. The main risk, she says, is that some Vine reviewers can be picky. They get a lot of stuff; yours probably isn’t the first pair of wireless earbuds they’ve used, or even reviewed. A four-star review average gets you through the door. Below three stars might close it completely. The earbuds better work.

The White Market

For Amazon, Vine is a legitimate, or at least sanctioned, alternative to one of the churning black markets that have manifested around the company. In the course of trying to contact Vine reviewers, whose contact information is not available on their Amazon profiles, I discovered sites where their email addresses — not listed on Amazon, but apparently scraped or hacked — were available for sale.

There have long been attempts to manufacture independent Vine programs of a sort. Unscrupulous vendors or sellers can pay click-farmers to view their product listings again and again, manufacturing interest, as far as Amazon is concerned, in products that were otherwise going unseen. The black market for reviews is, despite Amazon’s pledges to fight it, vast and largely out of the company’s control. The least sophisticated operations can be discovered with a quick search on Facebook or the messaging app Telegram, where “Review Groups” are full of instructions to buy a product, send a PayPal account to an email address, and to expect reimbursement, and maybe a little more, in return. With names like “US Reliable Reviewers-Free&Discount Products,” some of these groups have thousands of members.

Accordingly, fake — or at least unofficially incentivized — reviews are rampant on Amazon. A recent study by the e-commerce consultancy Fakespot estimated that 61 percent of electronics reviews are in violation of the site’s rules. Reporters at The Washington Post found that product ratings tended to drop when “questionable” reviews were removed.

The question of whether Vine reviews themselves are tainted by the way in which the products are supplied is easy to recast in the context of rampant fraud: at least it’s out there in the open. (K.T., the Vine reviewer, took pride in her work; other Vine reviewers granted that some in the program really did just want free stuff, but insisted that those motivated for grift don’t last long.)

“The whole process of reviews on Amazon can be really frustrating,” said Ms. Greer. “By default, Amazon created this problem by defining search results this way.” Amazon’s update to the adage includes the company’s name twice: You have to spend money on Amazon to make money on Amazon.

The Way Out

Vine has a few plausible futures. Current users note that it is functionally sort of rickety — a mixture of old interfaces and new ones, clearly run by a relatively small team. In some ways, it has never fully grown up. When reviewers receive items, sometimes they’re affixed with cardboard tags, which Amazon uses to designate what sort of “sample” the shipment is. There are six check marks on the tag, categories that include “marketing” and ”pre-production” and “fitting.” There’s no box for Vine, so sometimes a seventh box gets penciled in, a hand-drawn one that is hand-labeled “Vine,” and then checked by the same hand.

Maybe Vine gets sidelined, and replaced with something else — it’s been 10 years, anyway, and Amazon is always trying new things. (For example, it recently began rolling out a program to send free samples to users on behalf of major brands.) But the volume of products coming through Vine is still high, and the company clearly understands its utility beyond the fees it charges vendors. Amazon’s extensive and growing collection of private labels and exclusive brands also subscribes to the program, its listings topped up with conspicuously labeled Vine Voice reviews. Vine Voices make visible contributions to the ongoing construction of Amazon’s retail reality, review by review, star by star.

Vine has already changed a lot, changing with it the lives of its reviewers. The life of a super-Viner is one for which not everyone is well adapted. Last year, on Reddit, a Vine reviewer who had been in the program since 2007 shared that she had been kicked out. “I’m getting ready to downsize,” she said, “and was so relieved to log in tonight and see that I am no longer a part of Amazon Vine.”

She continued: “Pretty much my whole house is furnished with Amazon Vine. I eat Amazon Vine daily, and groom with Amazon Vine daily. I was no longer selective. I got divorced some years ago and it was nice to not want to take any material things with me because I knew goodies would be coming my way, and I was blessed with so much.” It’s a startling sentiment, to be relieved to no longer have access to, effectively, unlimited free stuff. But commenters — other Viners — were generally sympathetic. In a private message, she explained to me how she had drifted into a state of “overconsumption.” Things were exciting for a few years, she said, mentioning the same thrill in nabbing a good item, or a “shiny,” enjoying the rhythmic patterns of old Vine.

But then the feed came along. “I found myself checking the queue a dozen times a day,” she said. “I didn’t want to miss the next great thing.”

People tend to consider purchases. But when things are given to you, and it’s your job to review them, the value of the object gets scrambled in surprising ways, and its influence on your life becomes easy to minimize, or disregard. The free rug needs artwork to match. You wanted a road bike, but the beach cruiser was free, and now you have a bike, but you don’t really ride it. You get a Keurig, and you hate it, but Vine keeps sending K-cups, and so you keep drinking them. “Eventually, I think Vine caught on that I wanted a Nespresso from my search history,” she wrote, “and I was finally offered a Nespresso.”

“I have eleven Vine watches, yet I only wear two on a regular basis,” she said. “Before Vine, I did not even own a watch, as I considered them old-fashioned when you can check the time on your cellphone.”

Asked if she felt Vine had altered her relationship with material goods, K.T., the Vine reviewer in the Blue Ridge Mountains, suggested they consider how it might allow them to give back. “I pray for thanks and the blessing of Vine every day,” she said. She’s grateful, she says, not just to have access to this conduit of things that she might need or wants, or for the ways it allows her to be generous with other people, but for the task itself. “I’m just a regular person, I’ve got no claim to fame,” she said. “NASA isn’t calling on me,” she said. But Amazon is. Sort of.

Like many Viners, she been girding for bad news for years, just in case. “You’re getting so much good from this, and you’re not doing anything special,” she said. Her boxes — and what has effectively become her job — could cease tomorrow. “To Amazon, you’re abstract. For me. it’s an actual, physical, material manifestation. It’s here, it’s present in my life,” she said. “I’m just hoping that if I give quality reviews,” she said, trailing off. “Until it smacks me in the face, I don’t need to add complications in my life.”

Ms. de Avila’s choice to leave Vine was a rare one. She echoed the sentiment shared on Reddit, that consumption divorced from what typically dictates it — not just price, but need and desire — can have surprising effects. In 2014, she moved to a smaller home in a new place. She started getting rid of stuff. She was getting behind on her reviews, and started to feel guilty. She was losing her Sundays to Vine, just to catch up, and the boxes just kept coming. “It was becoming more and more difficult to become excited about receiving gifts from people,” she said. “It was kind of like someone who wins the lottery.”

It was too much stuff, and too much expectation. Perhaps it was her keener-than-usual awareness of how stuff fits into your life, or her previous experiences dealing with less-than-communicative omniscient beings. “I was a nun for seven years,” she said, “so I come from a different kind of material perspective: Take what you need. Don’t overuse.”

But she was also a dedicated early adopter — she was a Google Glass Explorer, for example, helping the company test out its controversial and since-shelved smart glasses — and had been seeking a sense of purpose after retiring from her secular career in information technology. Ms. de Avila was also living with multiple sclerosis. Vine arrived at the right time. “It gave me a way to build meaning,” she said, “leaving a corporate job with a lot of responsibility.” Receiving boxes from Amazon, and completing the corresponding Vine tasks, gave her a temporary new identity.

“I loved it,” she said, “I just knew it was time to step away.” When she did, she said, she was at peace. She doesn’t miss it.

Lately, Ms. de Avila has been cultivating what she said was a “sudden-onset” new ability that she described as arriving after a relapse with multiple sclerosis, and has devoted herself to creating art. She is particularly drawn to fractals — images that are self-similar no matter their scale — and has been accepted into juried exhibitions near her home in Florida. “I’ve discovered that art has become the ultimate benefactor for me,” she wrote on her own website, where she sells her work directly to consumers. “Its gifts,” she said, “are bottomless.”

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