Everyone’s a Critic

I am on the third of a five-our drive through relentless brown pre-spring scenery, and exhausted with my own taste in music, I resort to talk radio. As I scan to “The Ideas Network of Wisconsin Public Radio” I hear the phrase “the democratization of criticism” uttered into the public discourse, and for reasons I can’t fully explain it gives me pause for hours to come. What the hell does that precisely mean, the democratization of criticism, because, judging by the following discussion, it’s apparently what the entire internet is all about.

Once upon a time, when a person went to the store and purchased a product that proved unsatisfactory, that person would return the item and then, at most, grumble to a friend or co-worker about the ill-fated purchase, and that was the end of it. Now, when you purchase a product, you have endless opportunities for registering public complaint to an audience many orders of magnitudes larger than was commonplace just a decade or two ago. If that new Gwen Stefani CD isn’t as good as you’d hoped, drag the platinum blonde’s name through the digital mud on iTunes, and if the final Harry Potter is your idea of the greatest accomplishment of modern literature, you may join your voice to the great critical mass of Amazon.com and in both instances have reason to believe you may affect the purchases of someone you have never met.

No longer is widely-exposed criticism the lofty perch of a Roger Ebert or, with apologies to our own local Torquemada, a Lester Bangs, with their at least reasonably educated and well-worded complaints. These self-righteous bozos (read: professionals) are now equaled by the scrawling of every internet denizen with a screen name and a penchant to bitch. And who is reading these sometimes barely legible and usually off-the-cuff critiques? Pretty much everyone.

In browsing for online purchases, the convenience of immediately accessible reviews, perched helpfully right the on the page where you actually buy the product, negates the need to go in search in less convenient locales. Besides, JKRowlingFan1147 speaks your language and is much more likely to have a similar taste in literature than, say, NPR’s Alan Cheuse who, often comes off as the quintessential pompous film snob. So if Fan1147 proclaims Potter a “five-star, A+++” book that would even make a constipated Hufflepuff happy, who are you to argue, even if she did post those five stars before the book was actually released?

In the age of the internet, as worldwide communication confirms that misery loves planetary company, online customer surveys, review sites, blogs and forums have become a self-sustaining orgy of endless criticism, commentary and review. It seems if something can’t be rated according to a linear scale, it doesn’t even register on our cultural radars. Were future generations of humans to judge our current society based solely on the remnants of internet dialogue, they might assume we existed in an entirely consumer-based culture that made luxury purchases as much for the right to pass judgment on that purchase in online forums as for any utilitarian reason.

As usual, the internet seems to magnify our natural responses to an extreme, if only because our voice online is so loud and rewarded by a massive community of similarly behaving people. It’s one thing to read a book, find yourself disappointed and turn to your friend to express some general complaint. But something changes when that casual complaint is posted on Amazon.com, even if it’s no more irrational than the passing comment to a spouse, not because the sentiment is necessarily any stronger but because the context changes. Posting publicly endows authority, even when undeserved, and that the most absurd comments inevitably become the ones on which attention is focused only serves to worsen an already bad situation.

It leaves me to wonder if the very nature of criticism has changed. When the dysfunctional comments left in places like Aintitcool.com carry as much weight with purveyors of media as the LA Times‘ Kenneth Turan, it seems the nature of critical thought has changed for the worse. It seems, in giving everyone an equal voice, we’ve somewhat diminished the value of informed thought.

As a boy, when I wanted to know whether a given videogame was worth the money I scraped together from three weeks of woefully inadequate allowances, I could either ask friends who had the game or turn to the latest issue of Compute! Magazine. Now, assuming I haven’t already been infected with someone’s unsolicited opinion on a game during its years of development, all I need do is hit any of 10,000 message boards for immediate reactions. Should I have the fortitude to wait a full day, reviews from countless so-called reviewers in marginal outlets of little renown will espouse certain judgments in the guise of objective professionalism. And, should all that prove too troublesome, I could always simply allow aggregators to collect and disseminate the information into a numerical representation of quality for me. With such a robust sampling from which to draw, certainly this number between one and 10 is an accurate average of relative quality.

Everyone gets a vote, and every vote counts the same. That’s democratization, and it sounds great, except in the analysis of online criticism I begin to run into the same problem as the framers of the Constitution did when they settled on the Electoral College. Specifically, even without the benefit of the internet, they realized that while no opinion can truly be wrong, they can be ill-informed. We live in a world where everyone is special, everyone’s opinion is valid and everyone has a right to be heard.

The thing is, the more I am flashed with everyone’s usually hidden special-ness, the more I think there should be a way to put the genie back in the bottle. I’m not saying Greg Kasavin at Gamespot should have the last and only word on the quality of a game just because he’s a “paid professional” and has “editorial standards.” What I am saying is maybe we should all give him and his kin a little more attention than we give Quak3D00d when weighing criticism.

If this is the democratization of criticism, maybe I’m all for some totalitarianism for a while.

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