It all started when a few author friends of mine asked me to write a review of their books on Amazon.com.
After creating an alias, I wrote extensive analyses of their work, and then wrote reviews on items I had previously purchased on Amazon to ensure that my friend’s reviews appeared authentic.
It wasn’t that my reviews were faux, they were actually quite honest, but I didn’t want my reviews discarded due to an insufficient amount of reviews by my name.
Smelly markers for my son’s school, a backpack, bulk box of granola bars, candles. I started reviewing everything I owned in the evenings while I watched TV with my son, as I didn’t find his kid shows too cognitively stimulating.
Soon, I had almost a hundred “helpful” likes for my review of dry shampoo.
While I enjoyed helping people make product choices, it was therapeutic for me. It gave me a voice, albeit a persona I’d created, but still a voice on the Internet.
Apparently a lot of people were offended by my review of an ultra-sonic dog barking deterrent. I received no sympathy for having a crazy neighbor with 13 yapping Yorkshire Terriers in our adjoining backyards. I kept reviewing despite the angry comments.
An email from Amazon Vine arrived in my inbox, which I almost deleted thinking it was spam, but it turned out to be an invitation to join their Amazon Vine program. I didn’t even know what that was, so I Googled it, and learned that it was a selected group of people picked to review products Amazon sent to them for free. Yes, absolutely free. I signed up immediately.
Since I had a full-time job at the time, I sometimes forgot about the free items waiting for me over at Amazon. It took me a while to figure out that they updated the Amazon Vine list monthly and at a certain time and that’s when the top items were cherry picked. I must have been in a low tier of reviewers because I would get electric shavers, kitchen items and random gardening supplies, while others received gaming computers, fancy cameras and refrigerators.
There were hundreds of books available at all times. Score! I ordered 29 and read for weeks on end. Through the years, I’ve been lucky enough to review a home library’s worth of books, living a reader’s greatest fantasy come true, an office stacked with galley proofs.
It was trial and error figuring out what buyers found to be helpful. I learned to take most of my personal information out of the review and add more about the actual product.
Starting with the packaging, people wanted to know about presentation for gifts, if the product did what it promised, and the product’s durability. If I wrote about the time it took to set up, how challenging the directions were to follow, and any flaws that I noticed, the review would garner more “helpful” hits.
As my reviewer rank kept rising, I noticed that other members of the Amazon Vine team had their emails listed. I created a gmail for my alter-ego reviewing alias, and the emails started flooding in from companies wanting me to review their products. Again, for FREE!
Before I knew it, I was receiving boxes of products every morning and evening. The UPS man and I became buddies and he’d regularly comment on the amount of boxes he delivered to me each day. It was borderline absurd.
A king-sized bed, a humidifier, a ceiling fan, a bird cage. The products poured in. Diapers, oven mitts, a shower stereo, jumper cables, nothing was off limits. I no longer needed to purchase presents for my friends due to wine companies’ solicitations. Birthdays were easy thanks to the kitchen appliance and toy companies seeking reviews. My kids started to think every day was Christmas, and Amazon was Santa, dropping off the latest toys they saw on commercials.
Computer software, olive oil, running shoes, a year of Rosetta Stone’s online program. It’s completely random and you never know what will show up in your queue. It’s a reviewer’s lottery.
But I had too much stuff piling up, as Amazon’s rules don’t allow you to sell or give your l00t away. My garage looked like a thrift store, bursting with barely used items stacked to the ceiling. How did I end up with six vacuums? Had I become a hoarder? It was time to look the gift horse in the mouth.
I detoxed by being more selective with my choices, but it was still too much stuff. I dreamt of landfills and trash. It all morphed into waste. Everything began to feel like excess and insignificant. I wanted to purge but was torn by my feelings of lack and not being enough.
What if I needed something and didn’t have it? I lived in an eternal panic mode, fear of not being able to pay for what my family would need, and so I held on. Paperclips, probiotics, gluten-free gravy, curling irons, printers and potting soil. It kept coming.
Not wanting to waste this enormous gift that kept giving, I asked companies that solicited me for an extra item to donate. Most complied, allowing me to load up my mini-van with unopened name brand toys for CPS (Child Protective Services).
I was able to give clothes, food, the softest blankets and brand new strollers to shelters. Being the Robin Hood between huge corporations and those in need felt amazing. My reviewing finally had a grander purpose and I was so grateful.
Like all things in life, change knocked on the door again. Fewer and fewer companies needed reviews in an oversaturated market. And then the IRS arrived at the party, shutting down the open bar, sending everyone home.
Amazon now has to 1099 their reviewers for the retail value of the free products they receive. Those items don’t look as shiny or fabulous now that there is a tax to pay to review them. They are no longer free.
It’s the end of the era, and I don’t miss it, except for the Robin Hood part. The reviews took up time that I could have been doing more fulfilling things, and I don’t need any more stuff or clutter or dust collectors.
I’ve cleaned out my garage, and my kids will wait till December 25 for their goodies like everyone else. It was an awesome ride that lasted seven glorious years, but quite frankly, I’m glad it’s over and I’ve put my reviewing persona to rest.
I still order everything I purchase from the great Amazon.com, but only review when I’m feeling nostalgic.
R.I.P. Madelaine Higgenbothem, you were very, very good to me.