Why virtual sockpuppets are a bad, bad idea

>> Wednesday, September 29, 2010

In our ongoing chronicle of Very Bad Mistakes Authors Make Using Social Media comes this nugget of nincompoopery involving bestselling kids book author Christopher Pike, and it introduces a new media term you might not be familiar with: the sockpuppet.

The sockpuppet, when used in terms of social media, is a false identity created by blog posters to support their own arguments. Say you're debating who would win in a fight: Mary Lennox or Jo March. You think Mary Lennox would win by TKO, and you say so in the comments of a blog. Then twenty people jump in to argue for Joltin' Jo March, and you're feeling outnumbered. No problem! You just sign in under a false name (or worse, anonymously!) and back yourself up. "That Alan, he's right about Mary Lennox--and he's handsome to boot!" you say in the guise of your alter ego.

This, my friends, is a sockpuppet, and it's a BIG no-no.

What's worse than using a sockpuppet to defend your own position? Well, signing in as a sockpuppet to give yourself good reviews is pretty bad. But signing in as a sockpuppet to argue with negative reviews? WARNING, WILL ROBINSON! DANGER! You're bound to get busted.

Let us now examine the cautionary tale of Christopher Pike, who already uses a pseudonym as an author and is, reportedly, a rather mysterious figure by design. In an Amazon review for Pike's book The Secret of Ka, a reader takes him to task for what she says are a number of glaring errors about Turkey--the country in which the story is set--which all occur within the first twenty-five or so pages. Among these are little things like Pike getting the capital of Turkey wrong, putting Turkish women in veils and Turkish men in turbans when neither are worn there, and having the characters take a taxi cab to a desert on the outskirts of Istanbul when there are, in fact, no deserts in Turkey.

It does seem like just a bit of time spent on Wikipedia might have caught some of these errors, and I can see how they would rip knowledgeable readers right out of the narrative and ruin it for them. As a writer, that's the last thing I want to do, so I try to do as much fact-checking as I can before a manuscript sees the light of day. Still, errors make it through, and I have to say a mea culpa when a reader catches one. In one rather embarrassing gaff in Samurai Shortstop, I made the mistake of spelling "bonzai" the battle cry as "bonsai" the plant. Not particularly rallying, is it? :-)

But the last thing you want to do is to get defensive and start blasting a reviewer for her views. Whether she's right or wrong, there's just no profit in it. None. And it's even worse when you sign in not as yourself, but as a fictional editor named Michael Brite, which is what Pike appears to have done.

"Michael Brite" presented himself as one of Pike's editors in the comments to the review that blasted The Secret of Ka, and began to argue each and every one of the reviewer's comments. First up was the mistake about Istanbul being the capital of Turkey:

1. Pike never wrote that Istanbul was the capital of Turkey. I have his original manuscript and he said it was the "largest" city in Turkey. The insertion of capital must have crept into the book during the editorial or copyediting stages. However, Pike should have caught the change to his original document, and he is always willing to takes the blame for what goes in his books. He accepts the blame for this mistake. It is an error he hopes to fix when the book is reprinted.
Right. Sure. I have a lot of errors in my books that "must have crept into the book during the editorial or copyediting stages." Not. Yes, errors enter at this stage, but they are errors I make. My editors do not write my books. I do. The thing to note here that "[Pike] is always willing to take the blame for what goes in his books. He accepts blame for this mistake." This reads like a third person mea culpa, which, in fact, it will prove to be.

On the subject of turbans--well, he's seen lots of taxi drivers in London and New York wearing them...

5. The gentleman who picked Pike up from the airport in Turkey wore a turban. So Pike put it in his book. For that matter, Pike has had met many taxi drivers in London and New York who wear turbans. He mentions turbans only once, and no where else does he refer to people wearing them; thus, he does not try to make the reader believe that turbans are common.
It gets worse. People, debating reviewers is just wrong, wrong, wrong. You cannot win these arguments! The best thing to do is to write the best book you can and then LET IT GO. Yes, you fix things in later printings if you can, but otherwise, people have to be left to their own opinions and reactions about your work, and the work has to continue to speak for itself.

So, this poor reviewer (who has lived in Istanbul, and knows what she's talking about) is so insulted by the constant badgering from this Michael Brite guy in the comments to her review that she actually calls up Hachette, the publisher, to ask them if they know one of their editors is flaming her online. But before she gets a call back, another commenter digs up this damning piece of evidence from the review section of another of Pike's books. It's a comment posted under the name "Michael Brite":

In reply to an earlier post on May 26, 2010 2:59 PM PDT
Michael Brite says:
"This is Pike,
This is the real Christopher Pike, ignore the name this response appears under. I use many names online. The Eternal Dawn is a sequel to the other books. Sita is alive and well and the book explains in detail why Seymour portrayed her as dead at the end of the sixth book. Seymour is in the new books, although he does appear until half way through the first book. I feel the new ones are stronger than the old ones. Thirst 3 will be about 400 pages. I'm finished writing the main story but I'm in the editing stage. Yours, Pike "
BUSTED. Michael Brite is a sockpuppet for Christopher Pike. Ouch. And now there are blogs and message boards out there blasting this author not only for the mistakes in his work, but also laying into him for hiding behind a false name to defend himself.

"Michael Brite's" original comment has been deleted by Amazon, no doubt at the author's--or publisher's--request, but nothing can truly disappear in the internet. The evidence lives on digitally on blogs and cached pages. [The whole sordid mess is documented here, on the bookfail LiveJournal blog.]

I've said it before and I'll say it again: never, NEVER, say anything on the Internet you don't want to show up in a thousand public places.

And that goes for your sockpuppet too.


Kitt September 29, 2010 at 8:59 PM  

What a dimwit. This used to happen fairly regularly at a literary forum I used to help administer. It was always pretty obvious, and usually easily proven simply by comparing the DNS and registration info of the author and sock puppet. It was a insulting, really.

Anonymous,  September 30, 2010 at 11:14 PM  

Minor thing: bookfails is not her personal LJ; it's a community to which one can post reviews of any book one feels just fails. She isn't the creator of the community, either. Just a member.

Alan Gratz October 1, 2010 at 12:37 AM  

Oh, thanks! I wondered about that. I'll change that in the blog post.

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