The Fall of the Professional Critic, Continued

A post by Salon’s film critic Stephanie Zacharek today passes along the chief finding from a study by Martha M. Lauzen at San Diego State University, which finds that 70% of newspaper film critics are men. Zacharek redirects the focus from male-versus-female to the broader phenomenon that professional film critics appear to be a dying breed; newspapers simply aren’t hiring them anymore. This echoes a previous post here on Interaction Culture about the death of the literary critic, which I also first read about at Salon.

A line from the closing paragraph of Zacharek’s post resonated with me: “The numbers in Lauzen’s study don’t trouble me as much as the pervasiveness of the idea that critics — the last line of defense between moviegoers and studio-generated hype — no longer matter.” It is obviously not the case that critics no longer matter. And Zacharek herself in the same post observes that film criticism is not dying: “I don’t believe film criticism overall is dying — it thrives, in many different forms and at many different levels of quality, on the Web. But the chances of being able to make a living at it are growing increasingly slim.” So the issue here, as before with the death of literary criticism, is that the dedicated critic at a mass media outlet appears to be no longer a viable profession.

Without taking a position on that–and I can’t see how it would help anyone if I did–I’d like to point out the largest cultural implication of this phenomenon: cultural criticism, like cultural production (e.g., YouTube, blogs, and SecondLife), is increasingly out of the hands of professionals at mass media outlets, and increasingly in the hands of devoted amateurs. And although intuitively one might assume that the amateurs are categorically worse than professionals–and it is no challenge at all to find examples of this–nonetheless, my own research has shown that some amateur criticism is in fact nuanced, sophisticated, and high quality. A team of my grad students and I have a paper currently under review about critical standards among the bloggers on virtual fashion in Second Life, and we found that their critical vocabulary has matured over the years and today can be quite sophisticated.

That in turn leads to some new questions: How can we Web users find high quality amateur criticism? How can educators, interaction designers, and Web 2.0 community participants and community managers encourage and support the emergence of high quality amateur cultural criticism? How can those engaged in cultural production–amateur or professional–leverage amateur cultural criticism? How can we theorize around these monumental shifts in critical practices? To what extent are contributions from women, minorities, and traditionally underrepresented groups in cultural gatekeeping practices still excluded or marginalized–or are they? And finally, and not least, how can we economically support those critics who are providing us with this service?

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