Apologies for not posting--and my ISHR talk
It's now been two months since I've last written anything here. Sorry about that! My husband and I were on vacation visiting a friend in California. Once we got back there were all sorts of things to do. Then I went to a long-ish conference in Los Angeles. And then my father had a health crisis that was worrisome and absorbing.
The upshot of all this is that I've not been engaged with my blog, and I regret that. I was especially pleased to see that Clanchy Ratcliff responded to my most recent post. Thanks, Clanchy!
In case anyone's interested, I thought I'd paste in the talk I gave at the conference in LA. The conference was the International Society for the History of Rhetoric. My panel--other presenters were Anita Helle and Laura Gurak (who ended up not making it)--was the only panel on digital literacy at the conference.
So here's the talk....
ISHR Conference 2005
July 16, 2005
Los Angeles, CA
Online Citizen Book Reviews and the Circulation of Cultural Power
Perhaps the most efficient way into my talk today is for me to contextualize my project—which focuses on online citizen book reviewers (reviewers who contribute unpaid reviews to such sites as Amazon.com)—vis-à-vis three points of entry. The first point of entry is through cultural studies, which by now has a well-established tradition of studying popular culture. In this regard, you might think of my research on online citizen reviewers as following in the tradition of Henry Jenkins Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participating Culture, a thought-provoking account of television fan culture and of fan fiction.
Another point of entry, one admirably demonstrated by Laura Gurak’s talk today, is via internet studies. This growing interdisciplinary field is at the cutting edge of efforts to consider the social, cultural, political, and economic consequences of developing online technologies. Laura and her colleagues’ inquiry into the blogosphere demonstrates the valuable insights that can be gained when scholars use their understanding not only of technology but also of human communication and of culture to better understand such emerging forms as blogs, vlogs, and podcasts.
It will not surprise anyone attending this conference when I say that my third, and most important, point of entry is via the rhetorical tradition and rhetorical theory. (Indeed, my use of the term “citizen reviewers” is modeled after Rosa Eberly’s use of the term “citizen critics” in her study Citizen Critics: Literary Public Spheres.) One of the hallmarks of a rhetorical approach to communication is focus on the situatedness of all discourse. I quickly realized that in the case of online citizen reviews this situatedness includes not only contemporary practices but also past traditions and experiences. One of the most cogent facts about online citizen reviews, for instance, is the challenge that they represent to the traditional system of print reviewing—a system that was developed with remarkable speed with the collapse of the patronage system in 18th century Great Britain.
I will have more to say about the relationship between online citizen book reviews and the system of print reviewing later in my talk. For now, though, I want to articulate the primary goals of my presentation today. These are, first of all, to describe online citizen reviews and to situate them (however briefly) in the context of such related online forms as blogs, vlogs, and podcasts. My second goal is to delineate some of the opportunities for research that online citizen book reviews represent. Rhetoricians should care about online citizen reviews, I argue, because these reviews provide new opportunities for citizens who lack the cultural cachet of, say, a reviewer for The New Yorker or The New York Times to disseminate their ideas to a potentially broad audience. As such, they represent a powerful challenge to cultural hegemony. They also represent a potentially rich data set for scholars interested in rhetorical analysis; popular culture; literacy; reception studies; the consumption of culture; the history of authorship, publishing, and the book; and the sociology, psychology, and economics of taste and of consumer behavior.
So what are online citizen book reviews? Online citizen book reviews are reviews written by unpaid volunteers that are published on the Web. Perhaps the best known online citizen book review site is Amazon.com—but there are many, many others, including AllReaders.com, DearReader.com, BookReporter.Com, Complete-review.com, and Blether.com. Online citizen book reviews also appear on many personal web sites and, increasingly, on blogs.
Given my time limits today, I can’t spend the time I would like describing these various sites. I do have a handout, however, that includes a number of major sites you can explore. For now, I would simply like to point out that a small but, I would argue, significant number of ordinary individuals have gained considerable cultural authority via unpaid online book reviews. Some of you may recognize the name of Harriet Klausner, currently the top-ranked reviewer at Amazon.com. Klausner, who has posted more than 9000 reviews at Amazon, has been featured in articles in The Wall Street Journal, Wired, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, among others. Knopf publicity director Nicholas Latimer currently sends Ms. Klausner every fiction title his house publishes because he “likes her to weigh in” (Kaufman 2). Latimer does this despite the fact that Klausner’s sole claim to fame is her top-ranked reviewer status at Amazon.com.
It’s no accident that Klausner’s reviews, and those of other citizen reviewers, are appearing online, for they are participating in changes in communication technologies, forms, and practices that I am tempted to characterize as revolutionary. Consider the rise of weblogs or blogs. As of June 10, 2005 Technorati, an online site that describes itself as “the authority on what’s going on in the world of weblogs,” noted that its real-time search engine was watching 11,154,000 blogs and tracking 1,198,696,864 links (“What’s happening on the Web right now”). Two years earlier, it notes in its “About Technorati” pages, it was watching only 100,000 weblogs.
From 100,000 blogs to 11,154,000 blogs in two years: that’s quite a jump. But there are other developments in online communication that are equally significant. In the last year or so, for instance, vlogs (video weblogs) have gained in popularity. Indeed, when the well-known blogger Glenn Harlan Reynolds reported on the spring 2005 BlogNashville blogger conference, he predicted that “within a year or so we’ll see videobloggers beginning to compete with television news operations—especially local television news operations—in quite a few places.” And then there’s podcasting. In a nutshell, podcasting software—developed only within the last year—enables ordinary individuals to, in effect, host their own radio shows. As is the case with blogs and vlogs, getting your ideas out and having readers, viewers, and listeners are two different things. Already, however, some podcasts have as many as 10,000 subscribers. Just last spring, San Francisco’s KYCY-AM became the first radio station to convert to an all-podcast format (Evangelista)
I’ve digressed a bit from my specific topic of online citizen book reviews, but I hope the logic of this digression is apparent: online citizen reviews are part of a much larger phenomenon, one that is making it possible for ordinary citizens to not only share their views with anyone who has a computer but also to challenge the norms of high culture and the authority of conventional expertise. For just as online citizen reviews represent a challenge to the conventional system of reviewing, so too do blogs, vlogs, and podcasts represent significant challenges to the traditional Big Media, who are (hardly coincidentally) rushing to incorporate and commodify them.
Before we exclaim “O Brave New World” and formulate utopian and dystopian visions of the future, it might be good to spend a moment gaining some historical perspective. While I am clearly arguing that online citizen book reviews represent a new development in contemporary communication and thus are significant and worthy of study, it is important to recognize that for centuries tensions between high and popular culture, between those who claim authority and expertise as artists and intellectuals and ordinary people, have existed—just as gossip, satire, and parody have existed. Think of Nathaniel Hawthorn’s disdain for the “scribbling women” writers of his time or of Matthew Arnold’s lament for the decline of art and taste in Culture and Anarchy.
Not surprisingly, ordinary readers have often responded to this disdain by declaring the concerns of reviewers and critics irrelevant and have happily read—and written—texts that they find interesting. Consider, in this regard, the world of online fanfiction. If you’ve never explored this world, you might be surprised by what you find there. When I visited Fanfiction.com a few weeks ago, I discovered that there are 189,582 parodies or spin-offs of the Harry Potter series on this site. Though online citizen book reviews differ in intent and nature from fan fiction, they participate in and continue this tradition of resistant reading and writing—if only by asserting that ordinary people are perfectly well qualified to summarize and evaluate the books that they read.
So how can we best understand and evaluate the nature and consequences of online citizen reviews and related forms of communication? As I noted earlier, many who attempt to address this question are drawn to either utopian or dystopian narratives. (Remember how suspicious of writing Plato is in The Phaedrus?) Some of those who study the new media agree with Dan Gillmor, author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People, that the texts that appear on blogs, citizen book review sites, and other new forms of online communication hold the utopian potential of overturning big media and bringing something resembling democracy to culture and communication. Others fear that citizen book reviews, blogs, and pod casts threaten to weaken already challenged or limited standards for knowledge, culture, and taste. They wonder, as well, if customer reviews on Amazon.com and other commercial Web sites represent not a laudable resistance to cultural hegemony but rather the ability of capitalism to coopt and commodify individual acts of self-expression and communication. Those who hold this view are quick to point out the key role that customer reviews play in Amazon.com’s business model and the speed with which Big Media, business, and industry have attempted to capitalize on the blogging phenomenon by establishing their own blogs.
A few moments ago I indicated that online citizen reviews hold the potential to challenge cultural hegemony, and I’d like to take a moment to provide some historical context for this statement. To do so, I need to invoke the literary ferment that existed in Great Britain in the wake of the collapse of patronage. As Frank Donaghue notes in The Fame Machine: Book Reviewing and Eighteenth-Century Literary Careers, “literary production in [Great Britain in] the eighteenth century existed in a kind of limbo, between an age of substantial aristocratic support and the fully developed literary market of the nineteenth century” (1). As a result, during this period “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).
Since that time, this system of expert reviewing has spread throughout much of the West. In the United States, reviews published in such established venues as The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, Harpers, The Atlantic, and so on have played a key role in demarking the boundaries between high and popular culture. While many ordinary citizens demonstrate their indifference to these distinctions by choosing not to read these and similar publications, reviews written by those credited with cultural authority have traditionally had a great deal of power to shape and inform educated or elite taste.
The mere fact that the publicity director of Knopf currently sends Harriet Klausner every fiction title his house publishes simply because she is the top reviewer at Amazon.com suggests that this balance of power may be shifting. It is certainly the case that with the rise of the internet and of social media software ordinary citizens are with increasing frequency asserting their right to produce, as well as to consume, content. The texts that these citizens produce ought to be, I would argue, of great interest to rhetoricians.
One particularly rich site for analysis is Amazon.com, for Amazon provides multiple opportunities for ordinary citizens to post content—from reviews of book and other products to lists, guides, and images—on its site. The first thing to note about citizen reviews on Amazon.com is, as I indicated earlier, that they are part of Amazon’s evolving business plan. As James Marcus describes in Amazonia: Five Years at the the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut, when Amazon opened, Jeff Bezos hired credentialed writers and journalists to write reviews of books they sold. As part of Bezos’ plan to, in his words, “monetize” customers’ “eyeballs,” Amazon eventually substituted customer reviews for expert reviews (130). For some time now, Amazon has made it possible for readers to rank reviews, and it publishes the ranking of every single reviewer on its site. If you find a reviewer whose writing and “take” on books you like—Henry Raddick, perhaps, the British reviewer whose witty commentaries have earned him a fair amount of celebrity—Amazon.com makes it easy for you to find and read all his reviews. If that reviewer has also contributed “Listmania” lists or “So you’d like to….guides” to Amazon.com you can easily locate these as well. (In case you’ve not noticed, these lists and guides generally appear in the left and right hand sides of web pages on Amazon.)
In these and other ways—including such ventures as developing a new award for innovative non-profit foundations and encouraging Amazon’s customers to participate in the competition for the award by “vot[ing] with their pocketbooks”)—Amazon.com endeavors to create a profoundly personalized yet also multi-layered, multi-purposed community, one that embeds its primary mission of selling products and making money in a rich social context. Central to this community is the ability for customers to contribute content freely and directly to Amazon.com.
How can one best understand the role that customer reviews play on a site like Amazon.com? What motivates ordinary people to post reviews on this site, especially when a book has already been reviewed many times? (Last week I checked Amazon to see how many reviews of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible—a title I chose at random—appear on that site. The current number is 1281.) What might analysis of these reviews teach scholars about the rhetorical practices of ordinary readers and writers?
As I hope this final question suggests, I believe that rhetorically grounded scholars might find much of value if we studied sites like Amazon.com in particular, and online citizen book reviews in general. Citizen book reviews represent not only a rich data set but also a largely unexplored one. After a year of researching this topic, I have discovered only two studies of online citizen book reviews. The first study was undertaken by a group of physicists, who used the customer review data available on Amazon.com to study the physical movement of complex systems. The second study, this time undertaken by a Professor of Russian Language and Literature at Dartmouth, relies primarily upon quantitative analysis of Amazon.com customer reviews. Its goal is to develop a quantitative measure of the literary taste of ordinary readers.
As you have undoubtedly already noted, the two projects I have just described are grounded in quantitative studies of citizen book reviews on Amazon.com. In the time remaining, I’d like to suggest some ways that scholars whose primary methodology involves rhetorical and textual interpretation might engage the corpus of citizen reviews that exist on the Web. Perhaps the most obvious line of research involves rhetorical analysis. As I have read online citizen book reviews, I have been intrigued by the various and often innovative ways that those writing these reviews deploy ethos, pathos, and logos in their writing. When such research is inflected through the theoretical lens of such scholars as Foucault and Habermas, the resulting analysis is particularly rich and thought-provoking, as Rosa Eberly’s study of citizen critics admirably demonstrates.
I mentioned earlier in my talk that online citizen reviews represent the first major challenge to the traditional system of print reviews since this system appeared in the 18th century. As such, online citizen reviews—and the persons who write them—should be of interest to scholars who are endeavoring to expand the rhetorical canon and to explore changing conditions of authorship and of writing. The traditional rhetorical canon largely studies public documents. Efforts by such scholars as Cheryl Glenn and Susan Jarratt have challenged this norm—but as Glenn’s most recent study, Unspoken: A Rhetoric of Silence, suggests, many rhetorical assumptions and practices have yet to be exposed and examined. What might studies of online citizen book reviews tell us about the writing and reading practices of ordinary citizens? What motivates someone to submit the 1282nd review of The Poisonwood Bible to Amazon.com? What kind of conversation do a series of linked online book reviews represent? What kind of a public is created on a site like Amazon.com? To what extent to traditional rhetorical assumptions and strategies apply in such a site? What new assumptions and strategies might online citizen reviewers be developing?
I do not have answers to any of these questions. I hope that I have helped you to see, however, that questions such as these merit scholarly attention. I hope as well that I have demonstrated that online citizen book reviews pose a rich resource for scholars in rhetoric and writing. Like blogs, vlogs, and podcasts, online citizen reviews are providing new opportunities for ordinary people to share their views with others. We may not always like what we see when we read, hear, or view what our neighbor—or someone halfway around the world—has to say. But the opportunity to do so is unprecedented. I hope that scholars in our field will take advantage of these new opportunities to listen to the world.
 Reviewers on AllReaders.com fill in a seven-page form organized according to genre. Reviewers who contribute to this site can earn some money for their reviews. This appears to be determined by how useful others rate their review. I couldn’t determine how much money one might possibly earn by reviewing.
 Currently I know of at least one television show that relies heavily on vlogs submitted by ordinary citizens. It is titled “Zed” and airs on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
 Adam Curry’s “Daily Source Code” is an example of a podcast that has gained a wide listership.
 Another obvious example of such a challenge is the Wickipedia, which advertises itself as “the free-content encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” As of June 28, 2005, Wickipedia—which was started in 2001—had 612,301 active articles.
 Organizations like Our Media and Creative Commons are attempting to resist Big Media’s effort to discipline and commodify these grassroots efforts—but the extent to which they will be able to do so is open to debate.
 I do not mean to suggest that Gillmor is naïve about the dangers that those he refers to as “citizen journalists” face (xvi). Moreover, Gillmor “walked the talk” of his book in two ways. He and his publisher limited copyright from the current term (the life of the author plus 75 years) to 14 years. They also published his book Web and made it available for free downloading.
 In The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England, Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb argue that just as literary culture was transformed during this period so too was there “a consumer revolution in eighteenth-century England” (1).
A 2004 Pew/Internet study of “Content Creation Online” reported that, based on a national phone survey between March 12 and May 30, 2003, more than “53 million American adults have used the Internet to publish their thoughts, respond to others, post pictures, share files, and otherwise contribute to the explosion of content available online” (2). Many more persons have joined this group, of course, in the years since. A later report published in October, 2004 by the Pew Internet and American Life Project indicates that “Twenty-six percent of adult internet users in the U.S. have rated a product, service, or person using an online rating system.” As examples of Internet sites that use online review, rating, reputation, or feedback systems the report cites Amazon.com, EBay.com, Epinions.com, Google.com, RateMyTeachers and RateMyProfs.com, and Imbd.com (or the Internet Movie Data Base).
 I would be remiss if I didn’t add that, like most online sites, Amazon also offers a number of challenges for scholars. Since Amazon.com is always changing, it’s also hard to overestimate the potential frustrations and difficulties that scholarly study might entail. How would you like to try to study a data set that is, thanks to collaborative filtering software (which, by the way, represents yet another challenge to the traditional system of reviewing), personalized only for you—so that what you see on the site is not what your colleague in the office next door sees? Add to this the fact that Amazon.com is constantly adding new features to and removing old features from the site, and you’ve got a scholar’s nightmare as well as dream.
 At what Marcus refers to as “The Golden Age of Content at Amazon” (117) the company had a staff of twenty-fire editors. Marcus makes it clear that the shift from a paid editorial staff to customer reviewers was not the result of an effort to cut salary costs. Rather, it reflected Bezos’ understanding that , as Adrian Chan, an analyst for the marketing firm Gravity 7 observes, Amazon.com customer reviews “work by creating the mirror world of social value: reputations, desires, comparisons, and other kinds of associations reflected on the surface of social relations” (Chan)
 How many persons have written reviews for Amazon.com? Like many other trade secrets of the company, it is difficult to impossible to know. For one thing, multiple reviewers regularly share the same rank. (Amazon.com has not shared the method it employs to determine rankings.) On December 6, 2004 I spend several hours scrolling through Amazon.com’s rankings. On that day, the last ranking level that I found was the rank of 1,449,043. Thirteen reviewers shared this rank.
 These physicists became interested in this topic when one of their books made a sudden leap in sales rankings on Amazon.com. This raised the more general question of the ways in which various books achieve success. What they discovered is that “top sellers tend to reach their sales peak in one of two ways. . .[M]any get there because of. . .exogenous shocks: a major media announcement, a celebrity endorsement, a dignitary’s death.” In these cases, the instant rise in sales is followed by a fairly quick decline. Other books, such as Rebecca Wells’ Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, inch their way to the top over many months, helped by tiny “endogenous shocks,” such as a friend’s recommendation. Their analysis was published in the journal Physical Review Letters.
Professor Mikhail Gronas, the scholar undertaking this project, is using a complex mathematical formula to analyze the number of stars assigned by readers to books on Amazon.com. He is also analyzing the personal commentary provided by readers who post reviews on this site. It is not clear, however, what role this analysis will play in his research, which is still in progress and has not yet been published. Gronas characterizes his research as an effort to develop “a palpable, probabilistic approach to literary Criticism” (Dartmouth College Press Release).
 Also of interest are the related texts, such as FAQs, that appear on personal book review web sites.
 As part of his study of the development of the public in the early modern period, Habermas makes special note of the role that coffee houses, salons, newspapers, etc. played in this process. According to Ann Bermingham, co-editor of The Consumption of Culture 1600-1800, Habermas reviewed literary reviews and institutionalized art criticism as “typical inventions of the day” (10). Online citizen reviews, and the sites that sponsor them, are similarly “typical inventions” of the 21st century. What kind of publics are being formed, for instance, among the community of readers who write, consult, and rank reviews at Amazon.com? Online citizen book reviews are also relevant to the work of Bourdieu, whose Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste attempts to inquire into the “economy of cultural goods” (1). It is relevant as well to de Certau’s argument in The Practice of Everyday Life that scholars should shift their attention from the producer and the product to the consumer.