Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Geek Chorus #2: Who Reviews the Reviewers?

"Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"

The Latin phrase meaning "who guards the guards themselves" or more commonly translated as "who watches the watchemen" thanks to some graphic novel in the 80's no one remembers.

I'm certainly not the first person to do a bad takeoff of the famous phrase and I certainly won't be the last. I bring it up only because I think people tend to take the wrong message away from this saying sometimes, or at least different from what I take away.

I'm often asked why I call myself Joshua the Anarchist. It tends to make people angry, in fact, that I use a political term to describe myself, despite that fact that what I do online has nothing to do with politics. I've explained my reasoning numerous times and have no intention of going over it again here. I only bring this up to give context when I tell you that I am in fact an anarchist, at least at this stage of my life, by political affiliation (that's still not why I call myself that, but we won't go into that here). I usually deny the chance to debate my reasoning behind this belief. Besides, this isn't a political blog and I have no intention of changing that now. The only explanation I have is this: the aforementioned question "who watches the watchmen" is ultimately a pointless one to answer. Because once you answer it, you must then ask "who watches they that watch the watchmen? And who watches them?" The cycle is infinite. Once any man is given power over another, he must be made accountable to someone in order to prevent him from abusing said power. And that person in turn must be accountable, and so forth and so on. So the only solution I see is for there to be no watchmen to begin with.

Those of you still reading this are probably wondering what the hell any of that had to do with reviewers. Quite a bit actually.
Reviewers are essentially watchmen. We feel that artists and their creations should be subject to some accountability. We study and evaluate art and make sure to let the artist know when we find it lacking. Obviously we are very different from actual law enforcement; after all, art has no concrete laws. There is very little that can be called objectively good or bad. Nonetheless we as reviewers have managed to come to a rough collective understanding over what constitutes "good" art and "bad" art. And while we may not agree on everything, we as a community do see too it that artists cannot become too lazy or complacent in their art without risking mass ridicule.

However, a trend has been developing in the amateur reviewing community lately that a feel I must comment on: The Reviewer of Reviewers. Seemingly born out of the same idea of holding accountable those who hold others accountable, the idea is exactly what it sounds like: a reviewer that, instead of evaluating movies, tv shows, video games, literature, music, and so fourth, instead evaluates their fellow reviewers. And I mean know offense to anyone when I say that just a plain bad idea.

Don't get me wrong, I understand the mindset that brought this on. This being the internet, any old schmoe with a mind to do so can log on and call himself a "reviewer" and as a consequence, there are a lot on really bad so-called "critics" out there. For the most part, the really bad ones remain in total obscurity, but inevitably some end up rising to the top, even if only out of infamy. And even the good ones sometimes have flaws we often feel they don't get called on enough. So I can understand the desire to form a review show to try and keep them in line, or simply voice your frustrations to anyone who will listen. But trust me when I say that the whole idea is flawed from the start.

For starters, when any given reviewer voicing his/her opinion on a movie, video game, whatever, he/she has one big advantage: He's/she's not voicing said opinion in the form of a movie or video game. Sure, reviewers that make videos as opposed to written reviews are subject to a little hypocrisy occasionally. Perhaps they accuse a film of having bad editing in a review with even poorer editing, that kind of thing. But by and large, anyone who tries to counteract a review by saying "I don't see you doing anything better" is going to come off as a fool. Reviewers are not filmmakers or game programmers (for the most part), so little they say can be directed back at them. Even those that do make art themselves at the very least aren't trying to criticize bad art using their own bad art. They leave that to the Scream movies.

You've probably figured out what I'm getting at. It's way to easy to become guilty of hypocrisy when critics start reviewing other critics. It's very likely that while criticizing another reviewers' comedy, you're own jokes are eliciting groans. Criticize their editing, writing, opinions, screen presence, whatever; it can & will be thrown right back at you, even if you're in the right. I've seen reviewers of this type, whose production qualities & acting are terrible, trying to tell me that the Nostalgia Critic or the Spoony One suck, and rarely have I see a so-called "reviewer of reviewers" whose videos were above average. To be frank, most of them are pretty terrible and they end up making fools of themselves. There are exceptions to this, of course, but even if you make excellent videos, every time you say some one else's reviews suck, half your audience is going to reply "so do yours". And there's no defense you can offer beyond "no they don't".

And the problems don't end there. You may honestly want to critique reviewers in order to help reviewing improve and weed out the bad from the good. But no matter how noble your intentions may be, you are always going to have the appearance of a parasite. Reviewers of reviewers always give the appearance of simply trying to piggyback on the success of others. Most people that get into the game seem to be thinking "if I make a video about someone else's videos then I'll get his/her audience to watch me too!" And even if that's not your reasoning, there's no way for you to demonstrate that. It's another inescapable accusation for which there is no defense. No matter how civil and analytical you try to be, you will always come across as little more than a troll begging for attention.

And finally, going back to my original point, the entire concept is circular. Even if you insist on asking the question "who reviews the reviewers?" what's to prevent someone from asking "who reviews those that reviews reviewers?" How far would it go? The whole idea is silly enough as is, but what if it's taken farther? Sure, that sounds somewhat far-fetched now, but only because the idea of reviewing other reviewers is fairly new and not very widespread. No one using this concept has yet become popular enough to really be noticed, at least not to my knowledge. No review of a reviewer has ever gone viral. But supposing it does? Would a community of Reviewer-Reviewer-Reviewers really be far behind?

Now fortunately the same logic that lead me to advocate the utter dismantling of civilization as we know it need not fully apply here. Because what I think those people responsible for this trend aren't considering is that reviewers are already being help accountable: by everyone. Even before the internet, most reviews of any kind were printed in newspapers and aired on television. If they did anything wrong, there were plenty of readers and viewers perfectly willing to write letters calling them out on it. And now in the information age, reviewers are more accountable than ever. They don't need to be evaluated by other critics. That's what email, comment sections, and star ratings systems are for. Trust me, whatever critic you have a beef with has been told so over and over, and there's nothing preventing you from leaving a comment or two and joining the hate parade.

Whatever you take away from this article, don't walk away thinking that I hate anyone who produces a show like this, or that I think they do lousy work. I have friends who actually run such shows, some of whom do so with a delightful sense of self-aware parody about it. I only wish to point out the fallacy in trying to take this concept seriously. There's nothing wrong with posting opinion blogs about a reviewer, obviously, but trying to build an entire show around that is an exercise in futility.

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