Reviews are not criticism

Tom Vanderbilt, always worth reading, wrote an essay for the Wilson Quarterly about Yelp and online review culture:

If the God Criticism—in the sense of experts telling the anxious middle what to read, what to see, and how to be—now lays on its side, an Enver Hoxha statue in a Tirana back alley, what’s left? A new utopia of fisherman-critics who are free to make up their own minds and influence others? A glorious world of transparency and objectivity? A radical rewriting of the canon?

Perhaps. But there are complications with this idea that the Internet has obviated the need for experts and for critical authority. One question is what is happening to criticism itself when the evaluative architecture on a site such as Amazon is the same for leaf blowers as it is literature, when everything seems to be quantifying one’s hedonic response to a consumption activity; when we are forced into a ruthless dyad of thumbing up or thumbing down, or channeled into expressing a simple “liking” for something when the actual response may be more complex.

The beautifully tossed-off reference to Enver Hoxha makes me want very much to agree with his sentiment, but I have a hard time taking these “complications” all that seriously, at least in these terms. Yes, I am one of those horrid “too much sociology” types who thinks much of what passes for cap-c Criticism (or “criticism itself”) is elites flexing their cultural capital in the mirror. Snob critics invent bullshit terms like “the literary” to police otherwise indiscernable class boundaries and use aesthetics as a velvet bludgeon to beat back the uncultivated into their shantytowns of inarticulateness.

It’s not clear why anyone would expect Amazon to support criticism rather than promotional discourse (reviewing, etc.). Reviews are not criticism — Vanderbilt quotes critic Daniel Mendelsohn to this effect. So why are critics even concerned with them? It’s as if they feel that online review writers are crapping on their lawn. But even if critics did have some right to erect a fence around what they see as their turf, reviewing and criticism are entirely different territories. People don’t go to Amazon to contemplate the leaf blower’s place in the canon or how it reflects the culture or manifests some Platonic qualities of the fine art of leaf blowing qua leaf blowing. They go there to buy one, much as they do with books. Criticism doesn’t happen at the point of sale. It seems strange that anyone would expect that it would.

Does anyone seriously expect Yelp or Amazon reviews to be a useful guide to how to think about something? They are there to create a climate of enthusiasm that gets you to buy something. The star-awarding and the ratings-of-ratings apparatus drive engagement and generate data that the platforms can use in its marketing efforts; whether the individual reviews do anything to inform other users is incidental.

(This is how social media generally work: the platform wants the user-generated content more than the other users do, so the interface drums up a sense of urgency that is utterly lacking in the alleged audience. If you set up a booth at a carnival where people paid you a nickel to yell into a megaphone, everyone else on the grounds wouldn’t necessarily be psyched. But you would love it if they decided they had to use your megaphone to yell at each other about it.)

Amazon, Yelp, and other product-review compilers don’t owe their users any sort of editorial standards. These companies are not promoting criticism; their aim is always to defuse or diffuse it. As a Netflix employee tells Vanderbilt, users don’t really want more eloquent reviews or “expert” opinion. They don’t go to Netflix to be judged but to be entertained. I sometimes have a hard time accepting that this evasion of judgment bothers people. Oh, no! The “masses” are revolting! They are refusing to take critics seriously! They are being bad subjects! They are threatening me with their enjoyment of things I can’t appreciate and haven’t sealed with my imprimatur of approval!

Of course the evaluative architecture (read: amateur-advertising platform) on a commercially driven site like Amazon is going to be inadequate to the aims of criticism. Amazon wants to sell as much stuff as possible, and it is happy to provide a platform for amateurs — no one is “forced” to like anything or express any opinion there — to do some free marketing and create some free merchandise for them. If “everything seems to be quantifying one’s hedonic response to a consumption activity” on Amazon, that’s because of what consumerism promises — you spend some amount for a certain quantum of utility, and for a moment, for at least as long as the exchange preoccupies you, you are free from having your right to pleasure trampled by the realities and constraints of social hierarchy. You can briefly reside in the realm of sovereign taste. This is dangerous, but not because it compromises the alleged authority of tastemaking “experts.”

In light of what I was arguing yesterday about tastes and values, the proliferation of “evaluative architectures” appears to be trivializing occasions and spaces where values might otherwise be articulated. Frivolous and spurious reviews let users assess more aspects of everyday life as matters of taste and not matters of social interaction governed by values— values that ideally would be explicitly negotiated instead of being mystified in class habitus. At its best, criticism is an attempt to perform that public negotiation of shared values. (At its worst, it contributes to the mystification of snobbery.)

At the New Yorker‘s site, Gideon Lewis-Kraus argues that Yelp — which, like credit-rating agencies, takes money from the clients it is supposed to be neutrally reviewing — serves up “a manipulated consumer certainty” in its algorithmically selected review teasers “that only shores up the authority of an unchosen, hidden source,” namely that of Yelp itself, and the clients it serves (the advertisers, not the site’s users). Worse, it does so under the guise of granting users the feeling of authority. Not only is that authority ineffectual in practice (people of Lewis-Kraus’s generation apparently all know Yelp is a “terrible source of information” and “ignore Yelp entirely”) but it reinforces the idea that exercising cultural authority as an individual is something we should be entitled to and that the “right” to be recognized as an authority is a value we all share. Because, of course, what the world needs now is more microaggression.

The invitation to review consumer experiences is, as Vanderbilt seems to suggest, an invitation to indulge in some egocentric assertions of taste autonomy as freedom — to assert the right to an opinion for opinion’s sake: “the masses liberating the objects of criticism from the tyranny of critics is that so many reviewers seem to turn toward petty despotism.” It prompts users to arbitrage opportunities for making claims of their special personal authority, as if authority (even in matters as insignificant as local restaurants) were important in itself. In other words, they look for chances to be bullies.

“Evaluative architecture” also sets users in competition with one another under the pretenses of cooperation — reviews are easily mistaken as efforts to help others, but they are more often power grabs. The point isn’t to help someone else eat at a good restaurant but to become a heralded and platform-certified power reviewer who garners more attention than the other nobody reviewers. Yelp and Amazon create pools of crypto-authority for their customers to fight over, but unlike real authority, no one, not even Lee Siegel, is obliged to pay these reviews any mind.

If amateur reviewers were like companies, maybe the competitive environment would make them efficient, but they are more like interchangeable laborers. (Vanderbilt notes how individual reviews are less important to the platforms than the aggregate total, which is algorithmically processed to provide marketing angles.) Vanderbilt notes that Yelp reviews are a way for customers to police the affective labor of service workers, but he might have also pointed out that Yelp reviewers themselves are “immaterial laborers” who are apparently willing to accept access to the tools as their pay.

From an economistic point of view, reviewers work for largely winner-take-all tournament wages “paid” in the form of attention. They are not the “fisherman-critics” of full communism because they don’t control the means of their criticism production or how the product circulates. But viewing amateur reviewers as workers may be a useless frame; it makes more sense to regard them as consumers who are consuming the experience of “having a voice.” The problem with this is not that it threatens the discourse of other “real critics” but that it separates the significance of having a voice from being heard.

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One thought on “Reviews are not criticism

  1. Pingback: Sugar Bowl: Week of 5/11/2013 | Discharmed

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