Wednesday, May 17, 2000

Everybody's a critic

Before there was a World Wide Web, or at least before everybody and their brother was on it, reviewers had to have some credentials to opine about somebody’s work. Now, sometimes those credentials were sketchy; I reviewed plays for a city paper in college, and my credentials were mostly that I could string words together with some accuracy and I was willing to do it for low pay, But generally, a publication will confer status on a personage that allows said personage to analyze and sometimes rip apart a work of art at will. And the fact that it’s printed and published gives readers a reason to believe.

But of course, now that the great democratizer, the Net, has gotten a hold of so many eyeballs, everybody’s a critic. Anyone can go on and say what they really think about a book, movie, or record, and they don’t even need to leave their name to do it. Over at the Internet Movie Database, a reference I use at least as often as my dogeared copy of Leonard Maltin's Movie & Video Guide, any old surfer can write reviews, provide synopses, or vote on a film’s quality. Entertainment Weekly offers visitors to its Web site a chance to weigh in on the “Critical Mass” poll that appears in the magazine., like amazon, gives consumers the ability to sway their fellows at the point of purchase. Roger Ebert may influence what people choose to see in the theatres, but you might be able to influence what they buy on the Web.

Now, it’s a good feeling, to be able to praise a book you loved or dis a movie you hated, and see those words onscreen. But then amazon had to go and add another dimension to it by allowing people to critique its reviewers. Every review appears with the question: “Was this review helpful to you?” and the opportunity to check “Yes” or “No.” Helpful votes are tallied, reviewers are scored, and their rankings are posted. This should just give me a warm feeling, to know that my words are helpful, but what it does is make me insanely competitive. I’m currently ranked 2106. Who are these people above me, with their odd handles and know-it-all ways? Would it be wrong to recruit a bunch of people to just log on and give their reviews unhelpful ratings? Would it be wrong to recruit a bunch of people to log on and say my reviews are keen?

It’s better than the nasty letters that Ebert undoubtedly gets about his reviews--and it’s sure better than being called and argued with by an irate play producer, as I was in my college critic days--but it still makes me want to find those people who don’t like my reviews and ask them what their problem is. One of my contributions, which seems to me to be a wholehearted bit of praise for a book I liked very much, has been rated "not helpful" by nearly half of the people who have read it. I seem to have offended other fans of the book. But how can they disagree? I spent at least five minutes writing that review!

Democracy is good, but it’s not always pretty.

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