Citizen criticism usurps the professional

By Emily Merlino

In the Information Age, when movies are rated on websites like RottenTomatoes.com and IMDB.com by millions and books are reviewed by everyone from famed Yale literature critic Harold Bloom to your college roommate on Amazon.com, professional critics simply are not in strong demand anymore.

Courtesy Rennett Stowe/Flickr
Courtesy Rennett Stowe/Flickr

While this trend has caused many highbrow scholars to warn of the impending death of quality film, television and books, in truth this isn’t necessarily a negative effect of the Information Age.

In fact, this “new age of cultural populism,” as Neal Gabler wrote in an article for The Guardian, is “an age in which everyone is only entitled to his opinion but is encouraged to share it.”

This kind of democratic transition from the scholastic authority of professional critics to the rise of “citizen critics” who freely post reviews on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes and Yelp is entirely a positive change for many reasons.

First of all, critics simply no longer hold sway over the public.

In today’s world of populism and New York Times Bestseller Lists, self-published books like “Fifty Shades of Grey” are allowed to skyrocket to the top of the charts. If critics still truly held sway over the public, “Fifty Shades” would never be on such bestseller lists.

Furthermore, the Internet has allowed for an explosion of opinions on things most critics would rarely, and sometimes never, touch upon: niches like graphic novels and “chick lit.” Well-liked by the general public, critics have historically turned up their nose at “popular fiction,” where the Internet accepts and applauds different opinions.

“In literary criticism there are huge gaps in what gets written about in print: books by women, translated fiction, comic books, books released by small presses, science fiction,” wrote Jessa Crispin in an article for The Guardian. “Online, though, every niche has its community of producers, critics, and readers, and it’s fed by passion and dedication.”

This democratic opportunity for fans of each and every niche of books and movies to freely share their opinions with like-minded individuals “could not be more American,” wrote Gabler.

The aforementioned “explosion of opinions” has also allowed for a larger scope of discussion on books and other media that the narrow scope of traditional critics historically did not allow for.

The Internet allows for different opinions. “Fight Club” is listed as the 10th best movie of all time (according to viewers) by IMDB, but it is missing from the list of Oscar-winning films. Although “no serious person believes the Oscars are a list of the best films,” as Hari Kunzu wrote in an article for The Guardian, critics have limited the perception of what movies are “the best” by whether or not they have taken home a golden statue.

That the Internet has allowed for diverse opinions cannot be understated or underappreciated.

“Social networks don’t strive for consensus. Instead, they thrive on argument,” Kunzu wrote. This discussion of diverse opinions is vital to the formation of well-rounded opinions.

In contrast, when one looks at many critic-amassed “best” lists, they will see many of the same titles. This allows for little discussion of varied tastes or opinions, which in turn leads to monotonous lists and awards. While this might have been acceptable in years past, the Internet has all but eroded these strict highbrow boundaries.

“Critics continue to attempt to assert their control, only they do so by uniformity, coincidental or not,” wrote Gabler.

Kunzu agrees. “Critics acting en masse, with one eye on what’s popular and one eye on what’s good, end up praising work that doesn’t upset them,” he wrote. “That’s why there’s so much stuff that looks like art, smells like art, but when you bite into it, it just tastes of cardboard.”

Finally, the very idea of professional critics, trained to look at movies, books, television and even restaurants on a scale formulated on an inherently hierarchical scale is no longer needed or even taken seriously. “In this landscape, the highbrow/lowbrow divide seems like a quaint relic of a bygone age,” wrote Kunzu.

In an age in which “everyone is not only entitled to his opinion but is encouraged to share it,” as Gabler wrote, a critic is no longer a necessary profession when everyone is able and encouraged to critique for free.

Indeed, as the old saying goes, everyone’s a critic. This has never been truer than it is now, at a time when reviews can be written and published by literally anyone. With the rise of the Internet, the traditional “professional critic” is as obscure and unneeded as the office-bound travel agent.

Emily Merlino is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]