The st*r report

Endless rating systems have already begun to supplant real criticism; innovations in electrocriticism may further blur the line between reccomendations and reviews.

Published September 2, 1998 11:48AM (EDT)

For all those bleary-eyed readers who have thrown up their hands in frustration after wrestling with the defiantly abstruse prose of a People "Picks and Pans" review -- the thick patches of untranslated German, the exhaustive footnotes, the digressive references to the early work of Wittgenstein -- relief has arrived. This spring, the magazine began giving its mini-reviews a "Bottom Line" tag: a few words that give readers the gist of the -- well, the gist -- that preceded them.

The insta-comedy book "Viagra Nation"? "Bottom Line: Potent humor" -- a whopping 98.4 percent savings in efficiency over the 125-word review. Vanessa Williams' "Dance with Me"? "An invitation worth accepting."

Absurd as it is to further encapsulate an already gel-coated brief, this innovation amounts to a defiantly literate, even quaint, statement. For People's Bottom Lines avoid the ubiquitous practice of summing up a review with a numeral, grade, star constellation, or arcade-style glyph. In these days of criticism by the numbers, People is defending the word.

I will not stretch human charity by expecting you to pity the critic. But consider this: What other writer is regularly expected to append his work with a shorthand tag to help people avoid reading it altogether? Always well-loathed, critics are suffering insults from all sides today: Their work is rendered diminutive by service-minded, catchy ratings systems and capsule reviews, superfluous by the customer forums and reviews for hire of merchants-cum-publishers like and even made automatic by online product-recommendation software.

True, in terms of sheer volume, this may be the golden age of criticism. Online media, for example, are effecting perhaps history's greatest transfer of wealth from deep-pocketed sugar daddies to scheming scribblers who, in a saner economy, would be safely penning letters to the editor in their basements.

But from the standpoint of critics' actually being read, the prognosis is murkier. A populace with widening entertainment choices needs opinions by the busload, and it gets them in the form of Zagat's and Wine Spectator's numbers, Rolling Stone's stars, Michelin's toques and Entertainment Weekly's grades. In other words, ratings are more in demand than ever; it's the reviews we can do without. And while for the few lucky, well-branded Eberts among us, a famous rating scale can be a gold mine, the great, indistinguishable horn-rimmed masses are in danger of becoming the elevator operators of media: vestiges of a bygone era, whose presence lets you know you're in a classy joint, but who do little more than push the numbers.

Check out, for example, the music-rating chart in the new Gear magazine; a variation on the classic 4-star system, it uses
road-sign icons of little men:

4 little men: "Most excellent. Buy, buy, buy."

3 little men: "Very good. Invest if you can."

2 little men: "OK. Proceed with caution."

1 little man, wielding a shovel: "Shit."

Whatever this system says about Gear's tits-and-assets men's-mag ethos, it tells even more about criticism today, because it unapologetically admits its purpose is simply to tell us -- in an efficient way -- what to "buy, buy, buy." What's more, it essentially says that there is only one grade of album not worth buying: "Shit." Believe it or not, even a music critic, forced to use this all-or-nothing scale, is going to think hard before dropping doody on an artist in a national magazine. And in fact not one album in Gear's first issue wears the mantle de merde: Buy 'em all, immediately, tomorrow or eventually.

If reviewing is now in a standoff of service vs. criticism, text vs. numbers, elitism vs. populism, the trenches may be the pages of online stores like; there, hired-out pseudocriticism shares space with (mostly positive) excerpts from popular magazines and do-it-yourself customer crits. Place of privilege goes to the composite star ranking tabulated from customer reviews. And while highlighting the voice of the masses may be aw-shucks egalitarian, it's useful for a seller too, since, decent folk that the masses are, they tend to ladle the stars more generously than the cold-hearted pros. Squirrel Nut Zippers' "Perennial Favorites" earned faint praise like "Less could have been more," "Good, but also disappointing," "Not 'Hot,' but rather lukewarm" -- yet these three customers give the CD four stars out of five, which, at this writing, is also the record's overall composite rating.

Still, even Amazon's innovation requires someone actually impassioned enough to press the "send" key; for a true dictatorship of the proletariat, criticism must be automated. And in the September Harper's Steven Johnson looks at the next step in electrocriticism: online pattern-seeking software like the music-recommending Firefly and the Web utility Alexa, which draw on vast databases to tout albums and Web sites on the basis of the earlier choices of users with similar tastes. Johnson has taken up the topic repeatedly in FEED, where he hailed Alexa as a return to the bottom-up model of the Web as universal mind; in Harper's, he adds the caution that such technologies could be snowballing, self-fulfilling opinion makers (as, say, political polls can) -- just a different way to "foist schlock culture on willing audiences." Indeed, a system like Firefly's is the sort of thing that could only seem like a godsend to someone with more brains than social skills -- anyone who thinks that a total system of peer-group feedback will reward artistic innovation obviously skipped junior high. Cast one way, pattern seeking is a communitarian dream; cast another, it's philistinism as algorithm. Firefly doesn't know much about art, but it knows what we like.

But if critics are someday supplanted by search utilities and kibitzing online "neighbors," they -- or their editors -- will have paved the way. For these mechanisms are the logical, idealized extension of slapping numbers on subjective writing: criticism as a massive, searchable, compilable, multifunctional database. Quantified reviews aren't just reader-friendly anymore; more important for new-media purposes, they're machine-readable. I can already go to the New York Times' New York Today site and order a list of restaurants by star rating in any neighborhood, whereas in the newspaper I have to at least pass an eye over Ruth Reichl's foie-gras hosannas before skipping to the lowdown. (Possibly the most informative, literate New York restaurant resource online, in fact, is the amateur site run by lawyer Steven Shaw, who explains why he avoids star systems on principle.)

Granted, the fiction that complex critical judgments can be reduced to stars or bananas or whatever is often a useful one: If I can see in a half-second that a critic I trust hates "54," well, more time for me to do the crossword. But taken to its logical extreme -- and why should the geniuses of new media take a marketable concept anywhere but to extremes? -- critique-by-numbers could someday give us an exaggeration of today's two-tiered criticism system: Lane and Menand holding forth for the toffs, instant pattern recognition for the proles. Chris Bray, in the August Critics' Issue of Requestline, hopes that trends like the customer criticism at will, at best, free critics to concentrate on deeper matters: "The two-paragraph review can and should be shuffled off to the customer forum." In the same way, maybe online media's tendency to blurbify and quantify will at least draw a permanent line between recommendations and real criticism. But will anyone put down the platinum card long enough to notice?

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... That has such writers in't! You'd think someone who spent three years writing on media and information technology for a self-anointedly cutting-edge Web site would be the last person to use a musty phrase like "In the brave new world of Web media ..." to begin his final column, but that's why you're not Jon Katz. After his tenure of bringing such old-media prose stylings to said new world, Katz signs off graciously and gratefully in what he describes as an amicable parting with HotWired; the resolutely independent-minded, often hyperbolic ranter concedes, "The quality of my work was sometimes uneven" (he's too modest -- an uneven body of work is by definition always, not sometimes, uneven). Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Katz's last is that the frequently millenarian Web booster now admits, "We never became a political voice of a new culture" -- his yeomanlike work in support of the recent Digital Citizen poll notwithstanding. But let's not get carried away: The word "revolution" still appears thrice in his final piece. Fear not, though, lovers of Katziana. The columnist intends to bring his red flag and bandolier to a Web site near you, noting that he has already had talks with a couple. Be brave, new world.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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