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*The Amazon Wars

So it seems that historians are not only duking it out in the usual way, making their acid jibes and sneers in academic journals, but furtively, secretly, using alternate identities in Amazon.

Orlando Figes, a leading figure among British historians, attacked a fellow historian on Amazon by making vicious comments under an assumed name. At first, Figes totally denied that he had any connection with the comments. Then he said, “the wife did it.” And finally he admitted to being the real author. According to The Guardian:

The future of one of Britain’s leading historians was looking increasingly uncertain tonight after he admitted that he was the author of anonymous reviews that praised his own work as “fascinating” and “uplifting” while rubbishing that of his rivals.

His target is Robert Service, a professor of Russian history at St Antony’s College Oxford. It couldn’t have been any fun at all reading Figes’ nasty comments, and the attack had a chilling effect, which Service described as hell for himself and his wife.

Academic dueling isn’t new, but what is new is the ease of doing so anonymously on the internet by using a manufactured identity as the sockpuppet to spew malicious commentary. I’m glad it came to light, but it makes me think about how online ratings create an opening for this kind of maliciousness. Writers, academic or otherwise, are judged by their ratings. While this pressure has always existed, it is now publicly seen, publicly measured, and open to manipulation.

The good thing: I hadn’t heard of either Figes or Service, both historians of the Soviet era, and now I have. I’d like to judge Robert Service’s work for myself
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6 thoughts on “*The Amazon Wars”

  1. Oh my god! What an extraordinarily puerile thing for a supposedly intelligent person to do… I am just astonished to think someone of that sort of professional standing would go to the trouble of being so small as well as so gutless.

    1. Puerile is a great word for it, Di. I also wonder what kind of pressure these people are under to achieve better ratings on Amazon and its ilk. That goes both for the person who wrote the nasty comments and the effect it had. There was a Hasidic rabbi in the 18th c (the Chofetz Haim) who taught that malicious talk was one of the worst sins. I think I’ll post about him–there’s a terrific story about him.

  2. I’ve only just recently heard about this and I’m gobsmacked. What a horrid thing to do, and Figes has always had very good reviews for his work, so it was completely unnecessary. And fancy blaming his wife! Oh boy, I hope he gets hell for that; my guess is he will.

    1. It sounds like he is, Litlove. It seems so strange–I wonder what brought him to do it. He is responsible for his own actions, of course, but I also think that we are collectively responsible in what we value as a society, what we really put forward as admirable (success, ie celebrity, money) and the structures we have in place for measuring it.

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