Democracy? Really?

I finished Niche Envy last night — and I think that Joseph Turow would definitely disagree with this article’s lede: Help for the Merchant in Navigating a Sea of Shopper Opinions

DEMOCRACY is coming to online shopping.

Scores of Internet merchants have recently begun following Amazon’s lead by posting customer reviews — both flattering and flaming — of products they sell, and directing shoppers to sources of the most highly rated items. For example, shoppers can now find frank assessments of everything from Rolling Stones concerts to computers on sites like TicketsNow.com and CompUSA.com, among many others, as well as portals like Pricerunner.com and, in the coming months, MSN.

The trend arises both from an increasing tolerance for candor among retailers and from the emergence of inexpensive technology to track and post customer opinions on individual Web sites. This promises to give customers a new way to shop. Perhaps more surprisingly, it has bolstered the sales of some early experimenters.

Almost certainly, the reason for greater acceptance of comments is that *any* form of interaction adds to the retailer’s understanding of each individual customer, enabling profiling and “customer relationship management.” But “democracy” — no way.

It’s interesting to note that one of the features of the current advertising world that Turow cites appears in the article — the fear that companies are losing control of their message. And the article does give one indication of how hard they’ll work to try to redress the balance.

“It’s pretty clear that people are trusting the words of other consumers more than what’s broadcast on the airwaves,” said Peter Kim, an analyst with Forrester.

Meanwhile, Mr. Kim said, merchants have watched the ascendancy of Web logs. “They see they have less and less control over their brand image, and are questioning whether they ever did have that control at all,” he said. “That’s driven the openness toward having a greater dialogue about their products and services.”

Retailers like Mr. Lazarchic and others say they have long known this about consumers, but have had no efficient way to collect customer reviews. “This has been on our radar for the past four or five years, but the manpower required for it was always outside our capabilities,” he said.

Bazaarvoice solves that problem by soliciting, screening and analyzing reviews on the retailer’s behalf, then feeding data from those reviews back to retailers so they can modify their sales methods. The service charges a minimum of $24,000 a year.

The name of the firm, Bazaarvoice, is ironic. While the bazaar is romantic, it’s a complete reversion of what the modern marketplace has been about — openness and accessibility (“my money’s as good as anyone else’s”). That notion is eroding and, just as we see in the copyright domain, those with concentrations of wealth are investing in the technologies that they hope will skew the system to their advantage.

Related: New Way to Gauge a Publication’s Appeal