The role of the reviewer in an age of collaborative filtering: another one in the eye for tradition

This post was sparked off by a recent comment made by Stephen Smoliar, which I reproduce here:

Massively parallel reading may work for entertainment, but I find I need to focus when I get to the heavy stuff. Otherwise, I just come away with a superficial feel; and, if THAT is what I want, then I can get a bit more depth from THE NEW YORK REVIEW. Actually, I think that good review writing is probably one of the most valuable talents in the age of information overload; but, since so few people agree with me, I doubt that I shall be able to start my own service business around it!

Fascinating comment; there are some bits that resonate very strongly with my thoughts, and other bits where I rise up in dissent.

When Stephen says “I think that good review writing is probably one of the most valuable talents in the age of information overload” I couldn’t agree more with him.

The only question or issue is an old one. one that has already been debated between me and Stephen. What makes an expert an expert? Who decides that a review is good?
When we have active feedback loops and ratings systems and rankings, what is the role of the reviewer? What makes a good reviewer?

For some time now, I’ve been reading Amazon reviews by Kevin Killian. I was put on to Kevin by Ron Silliman, via his blog. And how did I find Ron? He once linked to me, and I followed him back. Now he’s on my blogroll, and I read him regularly.

Instead of Kevin Killian, I could have said any of the following:

  • PD Harris
  • Daniel Jolley
  • Kurt Messick
  • Lawyeraau
  • Mary Whipple

Actually there’s a very long list. The names above are the top 5 in a Top 500 list at Amazon, which you can find here.

But the guy I read? Kevin Killian? Well, he was last seen at number 122, or something like that.

And that’s where the sheer power of the web comes in. Sure I subscribe to, and read, the New York Review, The London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement and, for that matter, even Kirkus. At some layer of abstraction, I could argue that there is very little to differentiate between Kirkus and Zagat, which I also subscribe to.

What differentiates all of these from people like Kevin Killian is something very small, yet very important.

There’s a Long Tail Effect in Reviews, in Reviewers, and in Review Readers. A Long Tail Effect that gets suppressed in a traditional hub-and-spoke model.

It is only the market that can determine who is good and who isn’t. And over time, as we remove the corruptions of traditional sales and marketing, there will be a high correlation between what the market thinks and what the market is perceived to be thinking.

So for the most part I agree with Stephen: good reviews, and good reviewers, are really important. What we have to be careful about is formulating “expert” rules about what makes a good review or reviewer.

There’s one other thing that niggled me slightly. Stephen seem to suggest that being entertained by books is not a good thing. Even when I read to learn, I am entertained. I like being entertained. Why ever not?
Maybe it’s the words used, and I shouldn’t get hung up over the semantics. But I’ve heard similar arguments about new ways of working, even about social software, so I am wary. “If people are having fun it can’t be work”. Why ever not?

6 thoughts on “The role of the reviewer in an age of collaborative filtering: another one in the eye for tradition”

  1. JP, since you are reviving some of our past exchanges, I would like to point out that a good review is frequently (even if not always) the joint effort of a good reviewer and a good EDITOR. I read THE NEW YORK REVIEW not only because I trust the authority of the reviewers (with the possible exception of John Leonard) but also because I trust their editorial process. (It will be interesting to see if I maintain this opinion now that Barbara Epstein is no longer around to do the editing.) Yes, there are a variety of “long tail reviews” that I shall read from time to time; but I have yet to find a reviewer in that category that I am willing to treat as a trusted source (which may just have something to do with the subject matter I read).

    The other point I wished to make is that I had no intention of casting any asparagus at reading for entertainment. I just seem to be better at parallel processing where entertainment is involved. As a matter of fact, HBO and Showtime count on my being able to do this. How else could I track THE WIRE, DEXTER, and SLEEPER CELL in parallel? For that matter I do not wish to convey the impression that there is no reflective element in reading for entertainment. One of the reasons my wife and I used to read Tony Hillerman’s stuff aloud was because it provided so much food for reflective conversations. HBO seems to have hit on reflective content very well, whether we are talking about THE WIRE, DEADWOOD (my favorite on grounds of both story and discourse), or ROME.

    Having said all that, I continue to be extremely skeptical of most of what passes for “edutainment,” a neologism that I REALLY loathe! Most of the instances I have seen are all flash and no reflection. Give me good story and discourse any day, and I am unlikely to be terribly phased by the choice of media invoked to deliver them!

  2. Agreed. I too loathe edutainment. And another Hillerman fan!

    I guess I haven’t looked too deeply into the role of the editor in the traditional review model. Nowadays I would probably equate that to the role of the moderator or core. Something for me to think about over the next week or two.

  3. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having those “expert rules” as you called them, the trick is to accept that those rules too are now owned by each and every individual and not the “reviewers reviewer” in the said spoke and hub. Everyone is now the editor in chief of all they read and as in the old order the editor had constraints and motivators so too does today’s citizen editor, they take their lead through recommendation (the blogroll, the review of a book, the rating on a review).

    It’s an abstract and aggregative process that works layer upon layer, interconnection upon interconnection, anyone seeing a parallel here with something else that works really well; The World Wide Web itself.

    Ok, I see all this stuff works in a macro-scalar way, lots of little things making up a slightly bigger thing, lots of slightly bigger things making up a big thing and so on. Then apply a bit of feedback to the system too, so the eventual massive things either shape or themselves become an element in their own macro-systemic chain.

  4. JP, back in the days (before your time?) when Usenet was all we had, a moderator was little more than a gatekeeper, filtering out anything that was not deemed to be productive to the conversation. If you read any of the obituaries for Barbara Epstein in THE NEW YORK REVIEW, you would probably agree with me that she was very much a CO-CREATOR. I think it would be fair to say that both Mark Stefik and I aspired to this sort of role when we were editing the book reviews for ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE.

    Justin, the above characterization of the editor applies to your comment, too. Just as Foucault has played on the fact that “author” is the root of the noun “authority,” so it is that the editor bears a certain amount of responsibility for the authority of the resulting publication. The reply to your claim that “Everyone is now the editor in chief of all they read” was probably best articulated by W. S. Gilbert (and set to music that JP could probably sing for you):

    When every one is somebodee,
    Then no one’s anybody!

    Translated to my language, when everyone is an editor in chief then no publication has any authority!

  5. Stephen, your Gilbert and Sullivan quote (I assume it was Gondoliers) reminds me of the Yogi Berra version:

    That place? Nobody goes there any more. It’s too crowded!

  6. You give a list of the top 5 reviewers at, then mention Kevin Killian who you say was at around 122 at the time of your post. Kevin Killian’s rank must have been based on the list (where he is now at 101) because he is down at 222,390 on the list (yes, it’s more than a top 500 – much more). So if you’re gonna use numbers, use them all from the same list. Incidentally, the top 5 in the UK list all appear in the USA top 50, but only because we’ve posted our reviews in both sites. Most reviewers only post in their local Amazon.

    As to the more general role of reviewers, the vast majority of those who post at Amazon including myself are mere amateur hobbyists who do it for fun. Professional reviewers and amateur reviewers – like professionals and amateurs in any aspect of life – are completely different.

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