Friday, May 14, 2010

Reviews in the Age of Aggregation

One of the most dramatic elements of the new internet age has been the rise of aggregation. Before the internet, data was limited. Now we have unlimited data, and the limiting factor on people's consumption of data is time. In the previous generation, important people may have been 'personalities' who provided interesting outlooks on the world. Now important people are collectors who organize data in useful ways.

I think that aggregation has fundamentally changed the role of criticism in our culture in a way which most critics have not yet realized.

First let's take a look at the role of criticism before the rise of aggregation. And here I am talking about friendly accessible newspaper criticism which people use to decide whether or not to consume a particular work of art. I do not care about ponderous useless academic criticism which people use to gain jobs as tenured humanities professors.

So here's how people's relationship to criticism used to look: You want to see a movie this weekend. So you open up the arts section of your newspaper of choice and you read the movie reviews. Maybe you pay attention to the byline of the reviewer, and certain reviewers--A. O. Scott, say, or Ebert--will influence your opinion more than other reviewers.

In this situation, the reviewer is trying to get at a kind of objective criticism of the work in question. Since the reader is only going to read one--or at most two--reviews of a given work, the reviewer will do his or her best to set aside their individual opinion and try instead for a more universal opinion. The reviewer does not answer the question "Did I like it?" but answers the question "Is it good?"

This stance was a result merely of a technological limitation. The collection of large sets of data about people's opinions was difficult and time consuming. So the reviewer had to take the position of the sole judge.

Yet now, with the rise of aggregation, that has all changed. Data is cheap and plentiful.

These days, if I want to judge a given work of art, I will look at a site which aggregates opinion. Sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes digest professional reviews into numerical scores which provide a good guess at how good a particular work of art will be. Other sites like and Imdb allow users to contribute their own reviews. Sites like Netflix and the iTunes music store use complicated algorithms to look at individuals' tastes and try to figure out what art and music will appeal to them. And then just look at the plethora of different top ten, top 100 and top 1000 lists out there. We love aggregation. Sometimes we might look at the reviews of a particular favorite reviewer, but that reviewer is no longer the only source we use to judge whether we give our time to a work of art.

So there is now no more need for the reviewer who positions himself as the sole arbiter of a piece of art. The reviewer can merely give his or her own personal opinion and then let the aggregation do the work of providing a more 'objective' criticism. There is no harm now in saying "I don't like this film because the actor reminded me of my brother-in-law." The peculiarities of individual opinion are leveled by aggregation.

But criticism has not yet changed. To show what I think modern criticism might look like, I will periodically post reviews of things on this site, giving the most biased and personal reviews possible. To balance out these biased reviews, I will also include as much aggregated criticism of the given work of art as possible--its Metacritic, Amazon, and if possible, Imdb rating. In this way I hope to show both sides of aggregation--the small-scale, personal and biased individual reviewer, and the numerical, sphinx-like and sage aggregated number.

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