Here's a copy ofo the proposal I wrote last year when applying for a residency at my university, Oregon State University in Corvallis OR. It explains why I'm interested in what I'm calling online citizen reviewers--like reviewers on Amazon.com.
If anyone has any comments or suggestions, please send them my way.
Popular Culture, Technology, and the Circulation of Cultural Power
Introduction. For some time now scholars in a number of areas in the humanities have been investigating the nature and consequences of popular culture. Central to these investigations are questions such as the following: To what extent might various forms of popular culture represent either active or covert resistance to cultural hegemony? What can scholars learn about capitalism’s ability to co-opt and commodify such potential resistance by studying diverse forms of popular culture, from films, television, and music to online fanzines (where, for instance, some fans write new story lines for the TV series Star Trek that feature homosexual relations between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock)?
The project for which I seek support, a study of “Citizen Reviewers: Popular Culture, Technology, and the Circulation of Cultural Power,” contributes to this line of research. Most centrally, my project identifies and investigates an as-yet-unstudied site of potential resistance to cultural hegemony: the online reviews “published” by what I am calling citizen reviewers, individuals who compose and disseminate reviews of all sorts of cultural productions (books, films, and music being among the most important) outside of traditional review venues. I will provide several examples of these sites later in this proposal; for now I will simply note that with the development of the World Wide Web, citizen reviewers are increasingly making their presence felt online. Indeed, as I will argue later in this proposal, online technologies are enabling ordinary individuals to claim new forms of cultural power and are challenging ideologically grounded assumptions about who can—and cannot—produce knowledge.
A simple Google search reveals a good deal about the extent to which citizen reviewer Web sites have begun to compete with online sites for more established cultural institutions. When I typed the words “book reviews” into Google on January 3, 2004, for instance, the first five sites that Google presented included sites for The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, the American Library Association’s Booklist, Bookwire—and a site titled “Book Reviews by Danny Yee.”
This personal Web site includes reviews for over 700 books; in 2002 alone Yee’s site had “2.4 million page views by perhaps 900,000 people (excluding robots and other automated accesses as far as is possible” (Yee, “Infrequently Asked Questions”). As this example suggests, thanks to the Web it is possible for ordinary individuals such as Danny Yee to compete for cultural power with such culturally sanctioned institutions as The New York Times Book Review and The New York Review of Books. While such competition is limited to the Web, its significance should not be undervalued, for increasingly students and those raised in an online world turn to the Web before consulting traditional print sources.
Danny Yee’s Web site is a personal site; it is one of a number of such sites on the World Wide Web where citizen reviewers make their opinions about books, movies, films, and other cultural products known. A second major online venue for citizen reviewers is Amazon.com. Many academics purchase books from Amazon.com, so readers may be aware of the customer reviews that accompany what Amazon.com refers to as editorial reviews for most books.
Amazon.com’s decision to include customer reviews of books, music, and other products on its Web site offers unique and powerful opportunities for ordinary people to claim the expertise usually accorded to traditionally sanctioned reviewers, for the site’s sponsorship of citizen reviewers gives them access to an enormous and diverse readership. The only way in which Amazon.com privileges editorial over customer reviews is via these links’ placement on the page: the link to customer reviews appears below the link to editorial reviews. Recently, Amazon has encouraged customer reviewers to link personal Web sites to Amazon.com; many reviewers also create lists, guides, and other texts that appear as links on this site. As a result, these individuals can create a significant personal presence on Amazon.com, a Web site that is visited by millions of consumers daily.
As an example, consider the reviewer who identifies himself on Amazon.com as Bob NothingElse. I encountered Bob NothingElse when I logged on to Amazon.com to purchase Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. As of December 20, 2003, Bob NothingElse was one of 1179 persons who have posted reviews of Kingsolver’s novel on Amazon.com. Bob NothingElse has additional texts on this site. Links to one of these texts, “See What Bob NothingElse Has Read…Part II” appeared next to the title of Kingsolver’s title on the day that I accessed Amazon.com. Curious, I clicked on it and quickly found myself linking to the following additional sites: “Items from Bob NothingElse’s Wishlist,” “A Recent Review by Bob NothingElse” with a link to all of his reviews on Amazon.com; and “Bob NothingElse’s So You’d Like to Inadvertently Become Known as a Wry Intellectual Guide.”
As this example suggests, Bob NothingElse has quite a presence on Amazon.com’s web site—and Bob is not among the top ten reviewers who were recently selected via a popular vote by Amazon.com customers. (Amazon.com did not list criteria for ranking reviewers but simply asked readers to submit the names of their favorite reviewers.) The top-ranked reviewer, Harriet Klausner, has published 6113 reviews on Amazon.com; the second-ranked reviewer, Lawrance M. Bernabo, has published 6872 reviews; and the third-ranked reviewer, Don Mitchell, has published 2109 reviews (Amazon.com, “Top Reviewers”).
Description of Project. As these examples suggest, thanks to the development of online technologies, citizen reviewers are challenging conventional distinctions between high and popular culture and between those who are granted the authority of “expert” reviewers and ordinary readers and writers. For my Humanities Center project, I propose to study citizen reviews on the World Wide Web and to write a substantial article on this phenomenon that I plan to submit to College Composition and Communication. Most generally, this article would investigate citizen reviews as sites of rhetorical performance and identify lines of research that other scholars interested in this growing phenomenon might wish to explore.
Despite my interest in the current practices of citizen reviewers, one aspect of my inquiry would be historical, for I believe it is important to situate citizen reviews and reviewers in the context of studies of the history of authorship, intellectual property, and the various professions associated with the production, sale, and consumption of culture. Because my discipline is English studies—and because the history of authorship and of the book are particularly well documented in this field—the historical component of my study will situate citizen reviewers primarily, though not solely, in the context of literary production in eighteenth century Great Britain. As readers may be aware, this was a time of enormous change for authors, booksellers, and readers. Thanks to the decline of the patronage system, in the early eighteenth century authors could no longer define themselves or be defined via aristocratic sponsorship—but neither authors nor their readers had developed a stable set of criteria for or public means of categorizing and, most importantly, evaluating and ranking both books and their authors. The rapid development of a vigorous periodical culture in the mid-eighteenth century played a key role in addressing this problem. As Frank Donoghue argues in The Fame Machine: Book Reviewing and Eighteenth-Century Literary Careers, in the emergent literary marketplace of the eighteenth century “authorship became increasingly defined in popular criticism. . . [so that] from 1750 onward, literary careers were chiefly described, and indeed made possible, by reviewers,” who published their reviews in such periodicals as the Monthly Review (founded in 1749) and the Critical Review (founded in 1756) (3).
Several centuries later, thanks to the development of the World Wide Web and other online technologies, authors and others involved with the production, distribution, and marketing of culture in all its various forms are find themselves again in a time of transition. The issues at hand are different from those facing eighteenth century authors, readers, and booksellers, but once again reviewers—in this case citizen reviewers—are playing a role in this transition. For these reviewers are challenging the very forms of cultural power that were developed in the eighteenth century to authorize, disseminate, and evaluate cultural production.
As this brief historical excursion suggests, citizen reviewers are participating in much larger technologically driven cultural, political, and economic changes that are challenging conventional assumptions about the nature of the subject, of the author, and of high versus popular culture. (Think, for instance, of the extraordinary growth of Weblogs in the last few years.) As such, they represent a potentially rich site for ideologically and materially grounded critique.
Research on citizen reviewers builds upon—and could contribute to—such diverse scholarly projects as Pierre Bourdieu’s investigation of the “economy of cultural goods” in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1) and Thomas McLaughlin’s exploration of what he terms “vernacular theory”—theory as enacted by the creators of zines and of Star Trek fanzines--in Street Smarts and Critical Theory: Listening to the Vernacular (6). Citizen reviews and reviewers should also be of interest to scholars in reception studies, such as Janice Radway, author of Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature and of A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire, as well as to scholars inquiring into the possibility of new publics and public spheres, such as Rosa Eberly, whose Citizen Critics: Literary Public Spheres explores “the public arguments of literally hundreds of actual readers of four controversial novels in this country during this century” (xii).
If citizen reviews on the Web represent an important site for cultural and ideological critique, they also are of inherent interest as online sites of rhetorical performance. How, for instance, have citizen reviewers and the sites that disseminate these reviews established new means of claiming authority (ethos) and of supporting and documenting the judgments that citizen reviewers make (logos)? 
And how do they employ the resources of the Web to draw upon appeals to pathos (to emotions and beliefs)? Is it possible to identify a stable repertoire of rhetorical practices used by citizen reviewers, or are citizen reviews developing too quickly—and quirkily—for this to be possible?
As I hope is by now clear, scholars diversely situated in such projects as rhetorical and critical theory and cultural and reception studies should find citizen reviews a productive site for research. Despite this potential, to date I have not been able to identify any mention—much less sustained study—of citizen reviewers in scholarly work in the humanities. As a result, one goal of my project will be descriptive, for it will be necessary to conduct additional research to insure that I have identified the most important forms of and venues for citizen reviews on the Web.
Having accomplished this, I will then move to the more significant questions that motivate my study; these questions involve the nature and consequences of citizen reviews and the related online texts that are often linked to these reviews. Do these reviews represent an active resistance to cultural, political, and economic hegemony? Might they represent a potential public sphere, such as Habermas called for in such early works as Communication and the Evolution of Society? Or do they represent yet another example of capitalism’s ability to co-opt and commodify individual efforts to resist the ideological forces of hegemony? While I do not expect to develop a singular response to questions such as these—citizen reviews are simply too varied to accommodate such a reading—I do believe that my study will demonstrate that citizen reviews on the Web are a protentially rich object of study for scholars in the humanities.
Previous Humanities Center Grants. In 1995-96 I was awarded a Center for the Humanities residency to study the history of composition’s development as a discipline and the consequences of professionalization for both theorists and practitioners in the field. Two book projects resulted from the research undertaken while at the Center. In 1999 I edited On Writing Research: The Braddock Award Essays, 1975-1999. My lengthy introduction to this collection details composition’s professionalization and raises questions about its nature and consequences. A second book project, Situating Composition: Composition Studies and the Politics of Location, is forthcoming in fall, 2004 from Southern Illinois University Press.
On his home page, Yee identifies himself as a Eurasian living in Sydney Australia who supports his book-reviewing habit by working 20 hours a week as a computer systems manager for the Department of Anatomy and Histology at the University of Sydney.
These reviews most often are excerpts of print reviews published in such print venues as The New York Times Book Review, Choice, Booklist, etc.
According to Amazon.com, by December 20, 2003 Bob NothingElse’s guide had been read 2,107 times. Amazon.com has been quite ingenious in finding ways to produce cultural value via customer reviews. The first review of Kingsolver’s novel that appears on the site is prefaced with the statement that “31 of 33 people found the following review helpful” and is awarded a 4 out of a possible 5 stars.
Amazon.com’s recent invitation to customers to identify that site’s top ten reviewers and the related use of a star ranking system for reviews represent two efforts to claim cultural value for citizen reviewers and their reviews. Citizen reviewers such as Danny Yee often cite the number of “hits” their site has received over a specific period of time as implicit evidence of the value of their reviews.
I am aware that print citizen reviews undoubtedly exist. A mother who writes and distributes an informal newsletter for members of her La Leche group might well include reviews of new books on breast-feeding and infant and child care—and these would constitute citizen reviews. I focus on citizen reviews on the Web because of their greater accessibility. As Danny Yee’s website and the Amazon.com customer reviews indicate, citizen reviews on the Web also have the potential to reach a broad and significant audience.