I always enjoy it when Rick posts something here (or anywhere, really. You should check out his blog at AGL sometime). I think he is consistently one of the smartest, thoughtful, and informed people in theater that I know.
But on this whole posting-on-reviews thing (see comments on previous post), while I concur with the spirit of at least some of Rick’s statements (see David Denby’s “Snark” to read some thoughts on what the Internet is doing to our national conversation), I respectfully disagree with the letter of it.
First of all, regardless of whether you think it is a terrible practice or not, it is where we are. The Internet brought many amazing things to us all and one of those things is the ability to make us a more truly interactive society. Readers now expect to have the ability to interact more immediately with written content – whether it’s through embedded hyperlinks, complimentary video/audio, or the ability to post comments. One of the reasons print media is dying is because consumers now demand the immediacy and interactivity that the Internet provides.
Beyond that economic / functional reality, there is a democratization involved in this interactive media that I believe is overall a good thing. How many times have I decried (or heard other decry) the “imperial reviewer” in the past? The concept that the reviewer is some peerless “expert” just because his/her words and opinions are the ones that get published is still regularly complained about. For years, people have argued that their opinion is worth as much or more than the one in the Times, Style or the Times-Dispatch. So yes, now, everyone can be a critic if they want to be and post their comments or write their blogs. Power to the people!
The problematic aspect of this is that the ability for us to be truly interactive does not automatically or magically elevate the level of conversation. Yes, there is a lot of anonymous snark and mean-spirited knuckle-dragging and mindless babble. But is that the fault of the website that allows it? No. You open up the place for interaction and you get whatever interaction comes your way. People used to argue against universal suffrage because the average person is too stupid to make an informed choice. But Democracy won out in America, and we see the results in our leadership (good and bad), and these days we see it in the Comments sections of our websites.
So we are all subject to gobs of drek online now. However, having said that, I have found a LOT of value in the comments I have read, both on this blog and on the Style website. Yes, I have to filter out the babble and the snark – and the well-meaning people who manage to infer that I lack class, even as they are trying to be productive (thanks, Andrew!) I don’t believe the answer is to shut down the process. I believe it is imperative on us to raise the level of the conversation when we can, be more discerning of the garbage and snark, and if possible rescue the pearls out of the muck.
For example: the whole underwear debate about Amadeus. The initial commenter cared enough about what was said in the review to do independent research and then write something about it. As a reviewer, I wouldn’t feel undermined by that; I would feel appropriately challenged. With the Children of a Lesser God review, someone impugned Ms. Seigel’s ASL ability. Surely, this person had an axe to grind but it also made me think that I really didn’t have any basis to judge her ASL ability and that, to a deaf person watching the show, that ability would have been crucial to their enjoyment of it. Important insight embedded within a snarky comment.
So even if the bulk of anonymous commentary is drek, I’d rather have the comments (for the percentage of value derived however small) than not to have them just because they can be irritating. If the reviews I write can be undermined by someone who has an axe to grind against me, then I should consider (or my editor should consider) whether I should be the one writing those reviews. And if someone just wants to say, “your review SUCKED,” fine, that’s someone’s opinion and they’ve got a right to it. If an actor / director / designer is annoyed to the point of distraction by some snarky comments on the Internet (or by simple or frank criticism), they should get out of the business. In my reviews, I don’t normally say – “hey, that aspect of the production sucked” – but you can bet sometimes I’m thinking it. If an anonymous commenter says the same thing as I would only more bluntly, it doesn’t necessarily make it wrong in my book.
After all, in the olden days, didn’t they bring rotten fruit to the theater? Yes, digital rotten tomatoes are annoying, stupid, ridiculous, etc., but they are only the latest vehicle for audiences expressing their opinions.
Finally, as a big fat caveat to all of this, I think commentary submitted to websites, blogs, etc., should be edited and culled based on the appropriateness of the content. The wide-open commentary that I allowed on this blog at first provided a quick study in how people can cross that line from snarky or stupid to damaging and potentially libelous. I’m pretty sure there is some approval mechanism at the Style site for comments, but I’m not sure. Since I started putting comment moderation on this blog in response to a couple particularly mean-spirited comments, I have only felt compelled to deny one comment. Have all the comments been pearls of wisdom? Not exactly. But the benefit of the conversation – regardless of how insightful – clearly outweighs the disadvantages. At least, that’s my opinion.