The New Gatekeepers, Part 4: The Alternative

Fourth in the series on The New Gatekeepers.

A wonderful set of coincidences happened this weekend; I decided to take a break from writing, and then a beautiful woman flew into town and we happened to met, and we decided to go out Saturday night. Pretty quickly I had to find something to go see and a restaurant to dine in. Your dividend from all of this, dear reader, is an illustration about the different circumstances where gatekeepers are necessary or not: from theater shows to dining options.

In a given city, a performance airs for a limited time and is thus previewed by only a limited number of reviewers in the press. Even in New York City, which as the capital of American theater has scores of theaters and reviewers, for many years the arbiter of success was dubbed the “Butcher of Broadway” for his apparent power: Frank Rich, the theater reviewer for the New York Times. Thus we can say that people interested in going to the theater or any other artistic exhibition rely on descriptive reviews. And those reviews remain the domain of the gatekeepers. (Christine Temin of the Globe described Jose Mateo’s latest ballet program as “masterful,” so that was good enough for me.)

Restaurants have top reviewers, too. But their reach is much more limited, when compared to the lifetime of a restaurant. It is more likely that a restaurant-goer consult a rating service like the Zagat guide. The Zagat guide provides capsule reviews for restaurants, relying on over 250,000 reviewers in 70 cities in North American and Europe. The volunteer reviewers are given distinct categories to rate: Service, Decor, Food, and these are summed up into individual 30-point rating scales, creating aggregate reviews. These are accompanied by a brief condensation of fifty words or less. As Tim Zagat, who with wife Nina began the reviews 25 years ago, told a reporter, “(People) don’t have time to read 500 or 1,000 words about a place.” (and if you must pry, OpenTable suggested The Red House which was nearby, and it had a decent menu, so I didn’t even bother with Zagat’s.)

Another difference is that there’s an accepted wide variance in the ratings for eateries. That is to say, while a performance that gets one star will get hammered, a restaurant of a similar rating may serve a niche as “Cheap Eats” location.

We can make one simple claim: using the aggregate approach, the Zagat ratings make restaurants less beholden to a limited number of gatekeepers. The function of Zagat could be described as ratekeepers. They have even tried extending this to producing a rental movie guide, first published in 2002. It was panned by Slate’s David Edelstein for its assumption that movies, like restaurants, could be similarly reduced.

Nonetheless, a more basic poll, using a simple 1-10 scale, has been employed by the Internet Movie Database to rate movies. It’s lifted Shawshank Redemption, which was coolly received by critics in 1994, to #2 of all time, in the years following its release to cable. The IMDB should also vindicate Edelstein, who in his review of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, called it “the best movie I’ve seen in a decade.” It was not nominated for best picture, though did win best original screenplay. IMDB voters rated only 9 films since Shawshank above it – and all but two of them got a boost by being box office smashes (those two similarly centered on memory manipulation as a theme, and were also awarded for their screenwriting as well: 1995’s The Usual Suspects and 2001’s Memento).

So where does blog writing fit on this spectrum?

In blogs, the overwhelming number of reviews we encounter are descriptive. That is, most bloggers point to another piece, whether by a different blogger or in a recognized publication, and quite often throw in descriptive words. The sheer breadth of blogs in a given field necessitates some filtering. As a colleague in the new media research field told me recently:

I used to read 90-120 minutes of political news every day, but I’ve reduced it down to 5-10 and spend most of my time on New Media developments. I’m not getting a salary, and I don’t have a lot of time to go digging where there isn’t a lot of return on my investment of time.

If gatekeepers are not desired, than the alternative is aggregated ratings. There are hundreds of thousands of posts a day across millions of blogs. There’s a also an accepted variance of quality– such so that is possible to rate posts based on the quality of the writing and the point it makes. In theory, the best content shouldn’t need influential gatekeepers to push it along. Still, there is no common system for rating blog posts. There’s not even a system for rating individuals who make or comment on the posts.

There is precedent in the online world. Slashdot, a community publishing site that’s provided “News for Nerds” over the last 8 years, allows its members to score other comments through its rating system. The popular liberal Daily Kos community website also uses some sort of rating service. One of the new tools for social bookmarking, Furl, has added a 1-5 scale to allow users to rate its posts.

These are all rudimentary, and we’ll address in the final part how they could be improved and made to work with the still-present gatekeepers. But first we’ll look a little more deeply into the pitfalls of the judgment of crowds, whether influenced by gated communities and rated communities. We should be aware of the things that can go wrong before we assume that they will always go right.