Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Feature Article: A Conundrum for Cultural Critics

Cultural criticism is a key facet of media journalism and one that is regularly and readily consumed by the general public. Many people make it their business to be educated about the cultural world around them, whether they are seeking a recommendation for an ideal film to see on their Friday night date, whether the new Sue Grafton novel is as page-turning as her previous work, or how their new favorite restaurant has fared upon critical review. Critical reviews are just as consumable as the texts or experiences they document. Many consumers read these reviews and analyses to ensure they make an educated cultural decision. With swift inflation, not everybody can afford to outlay regular cultural expense. Others are interested in comparing their own opinions of the texts with those of the published writers. But what has emerged as the most widely accessed and publicly trafficked medium to write and report through? Many cultural critics are becoming less and less convinced about the predominant origins of their readers. Is the rising storm of online criticism and blogging placing more professional, and better-respected modes of mainstream communications at risk?

As an amateur film and entertainment critic and avid blogger, do I expect as many readers to pass through my blog (amidst thousands of competing critics and blogs) as say listen to the weekly reviews over the radio, or tune into the weekly television slot for At the Movies? Not a chance. I thought I’d ask some of the online community’s leading film bloggers their opinions on the growth of online cultural criticism and how much of their readership is outside of the blogging network. I also thought it would be interesting to investigate the success of promoting ones work over social networking giants like Facebook and Twitter. While certainly not attracting the coverage of mainstream media, many would argue they still possess beneficial means of promoting ones business and widely relaying your cultural opinions and personal agendas.

I spoke to Ryan Helms, an avid and successful film blogger, whose fantastic website, A Life in Equinox, is one of the most respected sources of insightful film knowledge on the Internet. He believes, “Blogging is arguably the most internationally accessible medium by which one can openly discuss varying aspects of their society” but he argues that “it is also the most turbulent and unpredictable.”  For a film blogger, to receive 1,000 hits for a single day might seem like a big deal. But compare that to a daily newspaper, which is bought and read by millions of people. The coverage is incomparable. A swift response to the article is only a short click away, which means that bloggers are often subject to angry and malicious rants into empty cyberspace. Alternatively, a dedicated critic may also benefit from a wealth of positive response, which will ultimately prove beneficial for someone working online to hone his or her writing skills.

Someone who reads a review in the paper really has limited means to communicate with the writer. Helms also declared, that “it requires a certain work ethic to establish and maintain a blog that maintains an air of respect among ‘professional’ media outlets.” With plenty of room for error and growth, many cultural bloggers are un-paid, semi-professional writers tackling the vast cyber expanse of the World Wide Web to develop their skills and have their work exposed for evaluation in a public forum. Comparatively, there is often immense pressure on a print or television journalist when faced with a one-shot article. Most film and entertainment critics working under contract with leading editorials also post a copy of their work under the related website, and their opinions are merged into a collaboration for entertainment sites such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. So even if their desired mode of reporting is through print, it is essential they cater for the inevitable growth of online readership.  Thomas Caldwell, radio film critic with Triple R and a contributor for The Big Issue agrees, “It is hard to find decent online work that’s not connected to an established source or by somebody who already has a presence in traditional media and sees online as an extension of their profile."

Tom Clift, an emerging film critic from Melbourne and a contributing writer for Row Three and Flickchart agrees, “There still tends to be a certain prestige associated with print media” and “from a writers point of view, there is certainly some amount of pride in seeing your name in print.” Predominantly a working online critic, Tom “turns to blogs and websites for almost all cultural criticism, for two key reasons: convenience and diversity.”  There is no debating the wealth of material available online, but the issue is, of course, discerning between the quality of the contributions. Anders Wotzke, a leading Australian film critic, editor-in-chief of Cut Print Review and member of the Online Film Critics Society, argues, “In traditional media, professional standards – a sense of quality control – still apply. For employed print critics, their work is their livelihood, rather than a hobby or a casual job.” Anders also believes that this will change. “As we begin to tame the Internet,” he states, “I’m certain online critics will be just as reputable as those in print, if not more so.” Caldwell also argues, “Traditional media seems to be increasingly disinterested in serious writing about cinema and it’s certainly viewed more as entertaining reporting than cultural criticism” which tends to suggest that the credibility of a high percentage of online criticism is not as low as many believe.

As for the exposure on Social Networking sites like Facebook, I am not yet convinced that there is any benefit to this strategy. It is a great way to keep your acquaintances and regular readers informed about new articles and developments in your work. But in terms of attracting new readers, I have found that many followers will be linked to Facebook, having already followed the site. Twitter makes it so easy to communicate with individuals of similar professional interests, and joining a large online community is an essential way of building recognition within your chosen industry. Most cultural critics will agree that trying a hand in different mediums is helpful to finding an appreciative audience. As Wotzke states: “Unlike in print, where your audience is only as big as the number of copies you print, there is a limitless supply of readers, watchers and listeners waiting online to be reached.” As a motivated hard-working online critic myself, this is great news. The skill-set of the 21st Century cultural critic now requires a diverse portfolio of talents to ensure professional recognition, but amidst the desire to be widely published, the choice of medium to target has presented a conundrum for agents of cultural criticism. 

What are your thoughts? 


  1. Most interesting and articulate post Andy! Great work!

    I think the rise of the bloggers is a good thing, from a personal point of view anyway, as it has allowed me to express my passion for film and share it with others like me, which I could never have done with the internet and in particular my blog. Professional critics are interesting enough and worth reading, but one can't have discussions with them as one can with bloggers, basically it's the interactivity that appeals to me.

  2. Exactly Jack. I think its pretty difficult to interact with professional critics. They write for their publication, and then post their reviews online. But they rarely follow it up with discussion or react to any comments. I think there is plenty of great work found only online, and perhaps in future, primary critical readership will shift.

    Thanks for reading, and the positive comment!

  3. Great post!
    I'm with Jack, the rise of the bloggers is a good one. I feel like, especially with movie reviews, that bloggers can be more easy to relate to. And most are good to interact with. That, to me, is better than having a whole review on every little aspect of a film.

  4. I am new here and am enjoying your posts. We seem to share similar tastes in film, although we need to have a conversation about a few!!

    Good post here, about a topic I have been thinking about for a long time.
    As a relatively new blogger I am, of course, happy to have this interactive medium that is open for anybody to read and respond to.

    What I fear will come missing before long is the breadth of experience and depth of knowledge that make some "professional" critics so valuable and worth reading.

    Everyone has an opinion about the movies they see, and some can convincingly express them in writing. But there are too many out there vying for attention that have nothing orignal to say, few insights, and lots of bravado.

    There is an art to good film criticism that uses technical savvy, insider knowledge, and historical context. These reviewers honor their readers, and the films about which they write.

    With so many new reviewers on-line lacking these tools, film criticism can become diluted, and no longer vital in reflecting, and even affecting, the type of films that get made.

    I think you are on your way Andy, and I look forward to reading more of your work.

  5. Thank you for the positive comment Tom. This was an article I decided to write for an assessment, and as part of my research I had to interview some of my fellow film bloggers and critics. I really like the opportunity the internet provides in expressing ones opinion, and receiving constructive criticism from the extensive community, which is extremely beneficial for someone trying to improve their writing skills. I only started working on this blog last February, and it wasn't until September last year that I was consistently posting. I hope to keep improving with each review.

    Cheers for reading,


  6. Hi Andy,
    I found your blog through Jack L.'s blog, and this article is superb. Good research, well-written... Go on like that.

    I personally am really happy for having discovered the film blogger society, where people are so nice and open, and you feel that films are their big passion, and you can have nice discussions and exchange of view-points.

    Something I'd really like to happen is, that Movie Bloggers would get more attention from the "real world", like Fashion Bloggers for example. They also became so important and "famous", because suddenly, there were new opinions and view-points available, aside from the Condé Nast dictation.

  7. Hello Lime(tte).

    Thank you for visiting and following my blog and for the positive feedback. I really enjoyed working on the article and it's really inspiring to see so many who have found it interesting. I love the film blog community. You are free to express your opinions about the film industry, and there is an abundance of people ready to read and discuss your work constructively and with passion.
    I think we will see the rise of the film blogger. The way mainstream media is heading, I think that some of the quality work found online is more fresh and passionate than some of comfortable older critics working today, set in their ways. Perhaps readers and listeners will want the more dynamic opinions of younger critics who have worked for years on developing their skills amongst peers who share the same passion, rather than turning out the same tired analysis week-by-week. Being removed from this online community I feel could be a detriment in the long-run.

    Anyway, i'm not sure if that made sense. But I'd like to think that working so hard day-to-day to fuel this blog will result in some success in the future.

    Thanks again for the comment, and stopping by.