Let me begin with a question:
How great is the internet?
Seriously, just think about it for a moment, go right ahead and bask in the sheer awesome concept that right now, you can be more connected and informed than anyone else in the entire span of human history. The feat of technology that delivers entertainment, culture, news and community at the push of a few buttons is one of the few genuine human achievements that have completely reshaped the world from what is was only a generation ago. Life without it is almost impossible to conceive of, and the very way that you know the internet has changed the life of billions? You don’t even think about it – the internet just happens.
One of the side effects of this normalisation of global connectivity is that art and more specifically our experience of art has become indelible democratised. For the first time in our cultural history artists and creators now share an incredibly intimate digital space. We comment on their blogs, fund their kickstarter ideas, re-tweet them and share their work on our facebook walls all because they have made their work, whether it be ideas, art, literature or music available to us, immediately and wherever we are. What’s curious about this, and maybe something we haven’t talked about enough, is how this affects criticism.
You see? I imagine a few of you made your assumptions about the word just from reading it. Criticism in the age of the internet has become something vicious and personal. Trolls have replaced commentators and ‘the critic’ has drifted away as more and more culture has drifted online. Several things are happening here – our understanding of the role of the critic has changed and more crucially, how criticism is practised has changed too. So let’s start there:
Firstly, critics. For all of the negative connotations the word carries, the truth is, on one level, really quite simple. The act of criticism is what happens when an individual comes into contact with something that provokes a reaction, usually in an encounter with culture but not exclusively.
That meal you really enjoyed? Food criticism.
The movie you posted about? Film criticism.
Your favourite book?
You see what I’m saying I hope – criticism is not quite the same thing as criticising. We exist in an age when culture is all around us and almost completely all-pervading and so we need to engage with it. This act of engagement, whether we admit it or not, whether we are aware of it or not, is a kind of criticism.
What’s crucial to say though is that whilst we all engage with culture in some form there is a difference between the cultural criticism that is done on a daily basis and the kind of thing done by those who identify as critics. I mean, not all of us have a column in a paper, not all of us get invites to premieres or critic’s screenings and not all of us have the same platform that CRITICS do, despite all of us taking part in the act of cultural criticism on a daily basis. So, what is it then that critics actually do?
Well, here’s where things get more complex in the age of the internet because that new found shared space of creators and consumers share has complicated the process of criticism a great deal. A lot of people tend to treat criticism from the people they read or like as gospel – either forming opinions from what the critic says or using the critic’s opinion to validate their own. For proof of this you only need look at the myriad of reviewers out there – on YouTube, across the blogosphere and even in more established digital media who have the temerity to dislike something popular. Sit and watch the comments roll in from people shocked that someone would have the gall to disagree with WHAT THEY THINK!
‘Well, you just don’t understand this…’
‘It’s clear you hate anything produced by….’
‘I don’t think you’ve reviewed this at all…’
‘All you’ve done is pick holes and emphasises the bits you didn’t like…’
And so on and so on and so on…
Two things are happening here – firstly, critics aren’t here to validate your opinions, or anyone else’s for that matter. The job of a good reviewer or critic is to accurately explain what their own experience of something was. Not to explain why you are right to think the way you do, but to explain why THEY think the way THEY do. This is my problem with scores actually – whilst I accept that scoring is useful, the problem is that scoring something with an arbitrary number perpetuates this idea that a critic can sum up a piece of work and how it made them feel in one easy to digest, black and white, right or wrong sound bite. This immediacy of the internet makes people want the easy answer but if anything can be summed up as good or bad then I wonder how good that thing really is…
I understand the reactions like the ones I gave before – this closeness that the internet engenders makes people really protective about the things they love, and that protectiveness means that criticism often meets with hostility. If you want proof, you only need to see the outrage when Anita Sarkeesian suggested that maybe women haven’t been represented that well in pop culture and we, collectively, could talk about it. If you want more proof, see the rage and the anger when the misogyny of fighting games was exposed, when Hitman Absolution happened and people called it out for the sexism and violence against women it perpetuated. People reacted so angrily and without being overly general, it tends to happen more online because this is where geek culture found its home. I get it, I do – a culture that is so young, and has been marginalised for so long, doesn’t take negative attention well. But there is a difference between being attacked and entering the conversation. You see, nobody will take the things you like away from you, nobody will suddenly declare that the one thing you really love is suddenly unacceptable. It isn’t going to happen, but part of being in the culture we live in, is talking about it – all the good, all the bad and what comes next. If there’s one thing that needs to happen more online, in forums, threads and feeds it’s that. Criticism and culture are for all, and here online there is the best chance EVER to bring them, and all the people who love them both, together.
Now, that’s great –right?
To Be Continued.
- Anita Sarkeesian and the gamification of misogyny (newstatesman.com)
- How to be Critical (literatureandlibation.com)
- The Two Cultures (newstatesman.com)
- The art of the critic (lamellae.wordpress.com)