This summer, the website Show-Score.com is partnered with the New York International Fringe Festival; if you review a show on their website, you can receive a discount to another Fringe show of your choice. Show-Score represents a means of democratizing the critical process, much as the Fringe itself represents a democratic ideal of theater production. Print and online reviews of a given piece are aggregated, and placed side-by side with posts from the general public. The resulting numerical scores are a little too J. Evans Pritchard for my taste (there’s an adaptation of Dead Poets Society coming to Classic Stage Company this fall if you didn’t catch the reference), but the goal of fostering a lively critical community is an admirable one.
It was in such a spirit of intellectual and aesthetic community that a friend of mine recently posted a review of a Fringe show he’d seen. It’s not a show I’ve seen, nor one in which any of my friends are appearing, so I have no personal investment in it; rather than bring it unwelcome or unwarranted attention, I’ll refer to it here as Something or Other. As it turns out, my friend wasn’t particularly fond of Something or Other. He had no vendetta against the show or its company, nor was he inclined to unleash trollish vitriol for the sheer nihilistic glee of it (“for the lulz,” the kids say nowadays). He simply didn’t like Something or Other, and posted a few brief words to say so, on this public forum actively soliciting feedback such as his.
His post was reported, flagged, and removed, on the grounds that it was a “violation of community standards.”
Now, if my friend were engaged in an active campaign of hatred against Something or Other – if he were a resentful rival playwright, or the stalker ex-boyfriend of the stage manager, or what have you – this would be a perfectly understandable response. Far too many artists find themselves the victims of coordinated online harassment, for reasons ranging from the political (they’re women, they’re liberal, they’re artists of color) to the petty (most of the same things, if you think about it). But that wasn’t the case here. My friend was offering honest criticism, solicited by the website itself, and was even offering it under his own name – Show-Score isn’t anonymous. But it was still reported and taken down, presumably at the request of the other people reporting on Something or Other. People who, judging by their gushing feedback, were friends and family members of the company of Something or Other, zealously lobbying on its behalf, and scrubbing any digital dissent.
I understand that this is how things work nowadays, that the business model for creative work requires “reviews” be numerous and gushing. Publishing provides the clearest example of this, especially at Amazon.com. In order for a title to be heavily promoted on their site, and thus be picked up by outside advertisers as well, it needs to receive a set number of positive reviews and a high overall “star” rating. As a result, any writer who’s not already an established bestseller is forced into the position of imploring their readers and friends to post favorable reviews in order to have any chance of a wider audience. And not just favorable reviews, but gushing raves, since the “five-star” label is all-important. In the current landscape, glutted with authors and facing dwindling readerships, it’s the only way to stand out. And it makes perfect sense that the folks behind Something or Other would have taken this lesson to heart.
The problem is that an avalanche of hyperbolic raves is every bit as destructive as an army of angry online trolls. Healthy critical discussion is necessary to the artistic process, to provoke new work and create a framework by which it can be understood. If it’s drowned out by knee-jerk venting, regardless of the side that venting is coming from, that crucial discussion can’t take place. Instead of a lively critical community, what results is a noisy wasteland. And from the point of view of building an audience, having every show be “the very best ever!” causes the same problem as mocking every show as terrible, in that the potential audience has no way of determining whether any show is worth seeing – leading to the ultimate conclusion that no show is worth seeing. So instead of creating an environment where all artistic perspectives are welcomed, this democratized model of criticism is currently contributing to a landscape where nobody can properly flourish.
All of which is to say that we really do need to get a better sense of how to make democracy work, and sooner rather than later. Otherwise, it’s liable to be replaced by something or other.
(UPDATE: After reviewing the incident, Show-Score did determine that my friend did NOT violate their community standards, and his review has been restored to the site.)