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Everyone’s A Critic

8 minute read
Richard Lacayo

How can you not love a website like JoeytheFilmGeek.com The personal touches alone may make it unique in the annals of criticism. Here is a reviewer who not only tells you his height and weight–6 ft. 2 in., 165 lb.; eat your heart out, Roger Ebert!–but for good measure explains that he had his tongue piercing removed after cracking a tooth on the metal ball. That may not entirely account for why he was so crazy about American Pie 2, but it helps.

When it comes to reviewing, if you want erudition, lucidity and fine judgment, read George Bernard Shaw on classical music or Alfred Kazin on books. But for sheer pinwheeling, exclamation-pointed opinion, there is no beating the regular folk who have popped up all over the Internet. Everywhere in cyberspace there are Web pages where do-it-yourself critics hold forth about movies, books, music and restaurants, to say nothing of airlines, power tools, and disposable diapers. What you discover at these sites is generally heartfelt and sometimes well informed and well written. Or breathless, obvious and ungrammatical–that’s democracy for you. It can also be eccentric in ways you don’t find in print or broadcast. How else to describe the Amazon posting on which the writer stops discussing the new ‘N Sync album to issue an important bulletin from the libido? ANYONE WHO READS THIS PLEASE HELP ME MEET JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE.

The spread of cybercriticism is easy to understand. Everybody has an opinion. But until the Internet came along, not many people could get theirs out to the world at large. Critical approbation was supervised by gatekeeper institutions–newspapers, magazines, TV stations–that chose professional commentators. The Internet blew away the gates, and it did so at the very time that cynicism was growing about whether many professionals were just mouthpieces for the creators of cultural product or out of touch with popular interests.

Thus the unstated premise behind all of these sites is that “my opinion is as good as anybody’s.” That populist philosophy has always made democracy a tough cultural climate for professional critics–the people paid to have views that are supposed to be, well, better. Even personal trainers can be certified. But the authority of critics rests on their powers of persuasion alone. “In a sense, we’re all self-appointed,” says David Denby, who writes about movies for the New Yorker, a magazine that prides itself on the luster of its critical writing. “There are no tests, like in law school. You just have to assert yourself and be able to write, and there are degrees of ability up and down the scale.”

Cyber review sites vary in how they are organized. On large ones like Amazon or Epinions, visitors are invited to weigh in on the goods displayed there. At more focused operations, such as the Internet Movie Database or RollingStone.com contributors think out loud about one topic, like movies or music. And then there are the lemonade stands of cyberspace, personal Web pages where just one person–JoeytheFilmGeek, say, or the Flick Filosopher–issues opinion for anybody who happens to stop by.

Many ordinary-folk consumers regard all of these cyberspace reviewers fraternally, as ordinary-folk consumer guides. The pros can seem too enthusiastic about mainstream product. Or maybe not enthusiastic enough–too removed from the workaday world of folks who pay for their own movie tickets or CDs. Browsers at Amazon or Epinions, who can vote on the usefulness of any review, have made minor celebrities of some regular reviewers, at least at those websites. Even JoeytheFilmGeek has registered more than 11,675 hits. “It’s that community I like; you’re sharing ideas with all kinds of people across the country and in other countries too, and then you get feedback through e-mail,” says Casey Stewart, 50, a registered nurse living in Stockton, Calif., who has rated more than 700 books, records and other products for Epinions as “kcfoxy.” “That’s what it’s about, sharing over the fence with neighbors.”

In the early history of do-it-yourself criticism, a signal event was the rise of the paperback Zagat restaurant guides, which compile the opinions of actual customers who replied to questionnaires. Beginning in 1979 with a single volume devoted to New York City, the Zagat empire has expanded to 45 cities and, of course, a website. There is comfort in knowing that the Zagat reviewers are ordinary diners who paid for their meals and had the real experience of a place, not the special treatment accorded to food critics who might be known to the chef. “Some critics sniff, Well, what does the public know?” says Merrill Shindler, who edits the Los Angeles edition of the Zagat guide. “I reply, Well, what do the critics know?”

If website criticism is on the rise, one reason may be that so much professional reviewing has gone squishy. In film reviewing, for instance, a proliferation of review outlets–small-circulation newspapers, local radio stations, dubious entertainment news services–has provided studios with an army of compliant “reviewers” who can be counted on to provide glowing reviews, or at least quotable blurbs, after being wined and dined at studio junkets. When the news broke earlier this year that Sony Pictures was promoting some of its films by inventing quotes from “David Manning,” a nonexistent critic, you had to wonder why they bothered to make up a slavish reviewer when there are so many real ones at work.

“A lot of people feel the major studios run the critics,” says Lisa Dinsmore, a website designer who started Crazy4Cinema.com three years ago. “You read certain reviewers and say, ‘I saw that movie and it was crap!'” But will the Internet emerge as the snarky and more reliable alternative? In recent weeks Dinsmore has been kinder than many full-time critics were toward America’s Sweethearts and Cats & Dogs. (“For the most part, it’s entertaining as hell,” she wrote of the latter.) The review pages of Amazon and Epinions are pretty cheerful too. Cyberspace may be famous for its rough and tumble, but for a good many Internet reviewers, it’s largely a four-star world.

Ethical standards in cyberspace are also a work in progress. Sites that participate in Amazon’s “Associates Program” can earn commissions when people reading their reviews click on a hyperlink to Amazon and buy the product being reviewed. The payments are modest, up to 15%, but any sales commission amounts to an incentive to post favorable comments. Meanwhile, JoeytheFilmGeek and the Flick Filosopher write screenplays, which raises the question of whether they can objectively review product by the same film studios they might hope to interest in their scripts. In her recent rave review of Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux, the Flick Filosopher even mentions having shopped a script unsuccessfully to Coppola’s company. Drew McWeeny, an aspiring screenwriter who reviews for AintItCool as “Moriarty,” insists that although he too is trying to sell the studios his work, “I’m not going to sugarcoat my reviews” of studio releases. All the same, conflict-of-interest rules and editors to enforce them provide safeguards so that readers don’t have to rely on the promises of writers that they play fair.

Meanwhile, though the studios don’t own up to the practice, they are frequently suspected of stuffing Internet review sites with raves for their own product that are written by publicists disguised as regular filmgoers. AintItCool founder Harry Knowles says he often filters out reviews from anonymous e-mail accounts, like Yahoo!, because those can so easily disguise studio shills. “Generally, you’ll see those reviews come in response to a negative review,” he says. “A day later you’ll see a review that can’t allow itself to be negative in any way possible. There’s a fakeness to it. I’ve printed a couple with the intro ‘And this is what the studio wants you to think.'”

The promise of Internet reviewing is that it refutes the old saying that the free press belongs to whoever has the money to pay for one. The pitfall is that cyberspace may go on forever as a place where the vox populi is embedded with vox populiars, where ethical standards are more flexible than the ones it took centuries to achieve, where they have been achieved, in the world of conventional journalism. All the same, conventional journalism can learn from some of the eccentricities of the Internet. Hey–anyone who reads this, please help me meet Warren Buffett. I could use some financial advice.

–Reported by Benjamin Nugent/New York and Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles

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