She hates mint. Don’t even get her started on mint.
She is 5-foot-2, drives a Honda CR-V, and has very detailed opinions on printer cartridges, tax preparation software, and five flavors of Burt’s Bees lip balm.
She suffers from dry eyes, a blister on her fourth toe that just won’t go away, and serious back problems.
She is “Ali Julia,” the nom de plume of a highly mysterious Boston woman who has become a powerful figure on the Internet.
At this moment, Ali Julia is the No. 1 ranked reviewer on Amazon.com, which makes her the queen of an elite — and very secretive — club that wields huge influence over the nation’s shopping habits. Amazon.com ranks its top reviewers, and at #1 is a Boston woman who goes by the pseudonym “Ali Julia.”
Companies send them piles of free products, often before they are released to the general public, with the desperate hope that they will sit down and write a detailed review, because studies show that customers are attracted to products with multiple reviews (even if they’re not all good).
Ali Julia has written more than 2,800 reviews on Amazon.com. And in them, she has revealed much about herself and her tastes. But she remains, even to the other top reviewers, something of an enigma. Her bio on Amazon.com is light on details, other than that she lives in Boston and is an engineer. (She declined, via e-mail, to be interviewed for this article.)
How one earns the “#1 Reviewer” badge next to their name is a mystery, even to those who have held the title. The ranking algorithm is a company secret, though top reviewers — who obsess over the algorithm in the Amazon forums — believe the key is to get readers to click “Yes” on the button at the end of each review that asks if the review was helpful.
“No” votes are believed to kill a ranking, and as such they are the preferred weapon in the wars that break out between rival reviewers.
“It’s a weird, creepy subculture,” said Mandy Payne, who is No. 10 in the rankings. “I get hate mail. I’ve had death threats. But then I also have fans who seem to follow everything I do. It’s bizarre.”
Payne, a 45-year-old political consultant in Los Angeles, started writing reviews when she moved to a Hawaiian island and relied heavily on Amazon to deliver the products she was accustomed to. “I became very dependent on the reviews, so I finally decided to have my two cents.”
Her first big hit was an irreverent take on a portable heater — she called it the Window to Hell — and she shot quickly up the rankings. Soon, she was being inundated with free products, and admits she became addicted to the strange power. One company revamped a product after she gave it a bad review.
“It’s like smoking,” Payne said. “You keep saying you’re going to quit tomorrow.”
She has yet to kick the habit, and it’s understandable. When she moved to a new home recently, she basically furnished it free of charge by having companies send her products in exchange for a review.
Payne does not know Ali Julia — “I picture her as really old” — but says she has no desire to unseat her as No. 1 because she can’t keep up with being No. 10. Each day, Payne comes home to between 15 and 30 boxes waiting on her doorstep, begging for reviews. One company sent her a treadmill. But much of the time, she receives endless versions of whatever is popular at the moment. She had so many Bluetooth speakers that she gave them out at Halloween. (Amazon prohibits reselling the freebies.)
Joanna Daneman, a 63-year-old financial professional from Delaware, is the most-decorated reviewer in Amazon history, a reign that began in the late ’90s when she decided to review every book she’d ever read. She has been No. 1 several times — she’s currently No. 4 — and has been in the Top 10 in 12 different years.
And though she doesn’t know Ali Julia, Daneman knows from experience that life in that top spot is life as a target. “It’s our national characteristic — we’re competitive,” Daneman said. “There is definitely targeting. It’s well known. You just have to keep calm and keep reviewing.”
Ali Julia has certainly kept on reviewing. She usually publishes three or four thorough reviews per day, and if you read those 2,862 reviews one after the other, you get to know a lot about Ali Julia.
She started slowly, with eight reviews in 2008 — “These run small,” she cautioned in her first review, for a pair of blue swim fins — and just one review in 2009. But in 2010, after back surgery, she really blossomed.
Two weeks later, she found an even better version of that device — the Long Reach Comfort Wipe — and when 97 of 101 people found that review helpful, she had a blockbuster on her hands.
Since then, Ali Julia has reviewed aquarium lights and vacuums, a thumb drive that looks like a pig, a garden hose, a ton of electronic equipment — she is the Roger Ebert of battery chargers — and a serum that promises to keep you “forever young.” Not all of them are freebies, and she has been known to file reports on things that are so everyday that they seem beyond review, like Kleenex and Bounty paper towels.
Mostly, she sticks to the facts, but in rare instances, will show real personality and emotion. In her review of the self-help book “Not Breaking When You’re Broken,” she praised the author for making her feel like they were on a team. “For a person who has been left and feels alone this style is comforting,” Ali Julia wrote.
And then there was the sock incident.
Ali Julia is a big knitter, and in 2012 she lost her cool about a book that promised to teach the secret to knitting two socks at once. In her opinion, it most certainly did not.
She went to Amazon to vent her extreme displeasure with the methods and included in her review a list of errata that she had gone through the trouble of tracking down from the publisher.
“I had to spend a lot of time fussing with my work,” she wrote. “My hands were at much higher tension and were tired.”
Ali Julia gave the book two stars. Three of three people found the review helpful.
She had checked the book out of the library.