Sunday, October 30, 2005

In which I take another baby step

I just checked my blog to see if there were any new comments--there weren't. But I spent a minute admiring my new blogroll and realized that when we imported the blogroll from my class blog into this one we included the link to The Writing Way. It makes no sense to do that since this is The Writing Way, so I knew that I should delete that hotlink on the blogroll.

At first I thought I'd ask Emily to do this--but then I thought "Wait a minute. You can do this if you try." So I went into the template and made what I thought was the right deletion. And you know what: it worked! So I have now done some blog administration in both my class blog and this one!

Small steps, but each one takes me a bit further.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Check out my new blog roll--thanks to Emily Nashiff

I'm learning a lot from the students in my class on Language, Technology, and Culture this term. For me as teacher, I know that if I'm not learning along with the students then I'm really not teaching, at least not in any authentic way.

But this term I've been learning in an additional way. Today, for instance, Emily Nashiff--a wonderful student in our class--showed me how to set up a blog roll for The Writing Way. Well, okay, so Emily set up the blog roll, cutting and pasting from our class' blog (The Presence of Others) and I watched.

But I did add a new blog link myself! For most of my students this would be a fairly insignificant step, but for me doing anything with HTML is daunting--even when I have a good teacher, like Emily, sitting next to me.

So thanks, Emily--and thanks also Michael Faris, who helped me learn how to do hotlinks in our class blog. I'm taking baby steps, but at least I'm trying.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Thoughts on the blog for the class I'm teaching this term

As I mentioned in an earlier post, thanks to the help of Jon Dorbolo and Mark Dinsmore, from my university's TAC (Technology Across the Curriculum) program, I've been able to set up a blog for the class I'm teaching this term, ENG 495/595 Language, Culture, and Technology.

It's been a fascinating experience, and in multiple ways. Since I've only required students to send two posts to the blog, it's been interesting to see what they choose to write voluntarily and what kind of comments they make. I definitely feel that the blog is adding another layer to class discussion.

Before I forget, our class blog is called The Presence of Others. This is meant to evoke Hannah Arend's comment in The Human Condition that "For excellence, the presence of others is always required."

Here's the URL for the blog:

I'll just add a few more thoughts here. The first is that I was originally very intimidated about the new blog since I'm now used to Blogger and the class blog is on Movable Type. But what was originally a limitation or problem turned out to be a strength since I have actually, with the help of Mark Dinsmore, Emily Nashiff, and Michael Faris (Emily and Michael are students in the class) learned a few things. I actually went into the blog and made some administrative changes. For most folks this would be inconsequential, but for me it was huge.

Our blog also has categories, which really make it easier to move around the blog.

On Thursday the students are going to do some in-class writing on their experience of the blog, which I expect will be mixed as some have been more and less involved. I'm really looking forward to seeing what they have to say.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

A quick clarification since I've given two talks at the Humanities Center in the last few days

Hi there,
I just posted the text of a talk that I gave at OSU's Humanities Center on Monday, October 3rd. This was a longish talk on the research I did while a resident at the Humanities Center last year. I was scheduled to give this talk last spring term, but an emergency appendectomy changed that.

But I also gave a talk at the Humanities Center the previous Friday. This was a much briefer talk that I shared with members of the College of Liberal Arts Advisory Committee. This is a stellar group of graduates from OSU's College of Liberal Arts--people who have gone on to be very successful in business, industry, and the professions--who provide guidance to and support for the college.

The talk was also on my Humanities-Center-sponsored research, but it was about 10 minutes rather than 40 minutes or so, as my talk yesterday was. I want to be sure it's clear that the talk I've posted is the longer version of the two talks.

If any of the Advisory Board members visit my site, let me say again how much I and other faculty members appreciate the good work you do for CLA and for the humanities in general. You're terrific folks, and I really enjoyed spending time with you.


Here is a talk on online citizen book reviews I gave at OSU's Humanities Center yesterday

Lisa Ede
Center for the Humanities
October 3, 2005

From the Monthly Review to Customer Reviewers:
Popular Culture, Technology, and the Circulation of Cultural Power

Who are Harriet Klausner, Henry Raddick, and Danny Yee? They are ordinary citizens who have achieved considerable cultural authority via unpaid online book reviews posted on and on personal web sites. Klausner, currently the top-ranked reviewer at (with over 9000 reviews), 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 In her real, as opposed to her virtual, life, Klausner is a retired librarian who works as a paid columnist for two national magazines, Porthole Cruise Magazine and Affaire de Coeur. Klausner lacks the credentials typically required to publish reviews in such journals as The New York Times Book Review or The Atlantic Monthly. Yet her reviews are highly valued by those who visit and by many in the publishing industry.
Why should scholars in the humanities care about reviews written by ordinary individuals like Klausner, Raddick, and Yee? Perhaps the most obvious reason is this: online book 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 popular culture; literacy; reception studies; the consumption of culture; rhetorical analysis; the history of authorship, publishing, and the book; and the sociology, psychology, and economics of taste and of consumer behavior.
Later in my talk I will look at online citizen book reviews in the context of the history of authorship, publishing, and the book; doing so highlights the significance of these reviews, which are the first major challenge to the traditional system of print reviewing since this system was developed in the 18th century.[1] I will also have more to say about potential lines of research on online citizen reviews in the humanities. For the moment, however, I want to situate online citizen reviews vis-à-vis such related phenomena as weblogs (or blogs), vlogs (or video blogs) and podcasts (do-it-yourself radio broadcasting), for all of these forms present direct and significant challenges to cultural hegemony.
Probably everyone in the audience today is aware of the extent to which weblogs (or blogs) have exploded on the communicative scene. In case you’re unfamiliar with blogs, however, I’ll quickly note that blogs are personal Web sites where writers can post whatever thoughts they want to share with whatever readers come their way. Posts on blogs are presented in reverse chronological order. Most blogs have functions that encourage responses to postings; most also enable bloggers to link to other sites.
Blogs would not exist if software developers like Corvallis’ own Paul Bausch had not seen the need for programs that would enable ordinary citizens to share their views on the web. Paul Bausch helped to develop Blogger, the first blogging program. This program enables people with no knowledge of HTML to set up web sites in a remarkably brief amount of time. I know because a year ago I used Blogger to set up my own blog, The Writing Way, in less than 5 minutes. To do so all I had to do was set up a blogger account, choose a title and template for my blog, and bingo: I had a blog. My blog is very simple. Here are two much more sophisticated blogs. The first is Paul Bausch’s blog, The second is, a blog hosted by Clancy Ratliff, a Ph.D. student in the rhetoric department of the University of Minnesota.
As you may be aware, in the last several years, blogs, blogging, and bloggers have received a huge amount of attention in the popular media. In fact, blogs are proliferating so rapidly throughout the world that it is hard to track them. Technorati, an online site that describes itself as “the authority on what’s going on in the world of weblogs” is trying very hard to do just that, however. As of this past September 20th, Technoratti, noted that its real-time search engine was watching 17.5 million blogs and tracking 1.5 billion 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 17.5 million blogs in two years: that’s quite a jump. But there are other key 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 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.”[2]
And then there’s podcasting. Just as blog software allows anyone with minimal technical know how to produce and disseminate videos, so too does podcasting software, such as Ipodder, allow anyone to produce their own radio show. As is the case with blogs and vlogs, getting your ideas out and having listeners are two different things. Already, however, some podcasts have as many as 10,000 subscribers and San Francisco’s KYCY_AM recently became the first radio station to convert to an all podcast format under the new call letters KYOU Open Source Radio.[3]
I’ve digressed a bit from my specific topic of online citizen 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 to “publish” their views but also to challenge the norms of high culture and the authority of conventional expertise.[4] 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.[5]
Before we exclaim “O Brave New World” and formulate utopian and dystopian visions of the future—visions that exist aplenty in the world of digital communication—it might be good to spend a moment gaining some historical perspective. While I am clearly arguing that online citizen reviews and related forms of online communication such as blogs, vlogs, and podcasts represent new developments 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. Contemporary fan fiction is a good example of this willingness to ignore—and even get in the face of—high culture. If you want to get a sense of just how many people are writing fan fiction, take a look at When I checked this site last June 28th, I discovered that the site included not only spin-offs or parodies of the Harry Potter series—189,582 of them to be precise—but also of Homer, Jane Austin, Charles Dickens, and the Bible. Though online citizen 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? Many who attempt to address this question are drawn to either utopian or dystopian narratives. In so doing, they are (often unconsciously) participating in a long tradition of extremist commentaries about the consequences of new communication technologies. Remember how suspicious Plato is of writing in The Phaedrus? In the 18th century, the French scholar Diderot was so alarmed by the rapid increase in the number of printed books that he feared that “the world of learning will drown in books”(Rudenstine A48).[6] Much more recently, in 1956—when some of us in this room were in or entering school—educator Gerald Thorsen complained that students at that time were lost “to a world of mass media: tv, radio, motion pictures, newspapers, and comic books.” As a result, he said, “the cultural uses of language have been excluded. We have forgotten about books” (Crowley 105).[7]
What is true of new technologies of communication is equally true of such online developments as citizen reviews, blogs, vlogs, and podcasts, all of which depend on what is sometimes termed social media software. Some contemporary commentators agree with Dan Gillmor, author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People, that the texts generated through this software—Gillmor’s particular focus is on blogs—holds the utopian potential of overturning big media and bringing something resembling democracy to culture and communication.[8] Others fear that blogs, citizen reviews, and pod casts will weaken already threatened standards for knowledge, culture, and taste. They wonder, as well, if customer reviews on 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. (There’s a reason, after all, why calls its reviewers customer reviewers.) Those who hold this view are quick to point out the key role that customer reviews play in’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).[9]
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, those who wish to be (or to appear to be) educated consult them regularly. And even if they don’t read these publications as often as they feel they should—even if they subscribe to The New Yorker as much for the cartoons as for its reviews and commentary—their sense of the different values accorded to “serious” literature versus such genres as romance, mystery, and fantasy novels reflects the power that reviews written by those credited with cultural authority have to shape and inform 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 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 asserting their right to produce, as well as to consume, content. 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,,,, RateMyTeachers and, and (or the Internet Movie Data Base).
As these examples suggest, just about anything can be—and probably is being—reviewed online. In my research and in my talk today, however, I am focusing primarily on online citizen book reviews. I do so because book reviews play a particularly powerful role in the academy, and in the transmission of literary and intellectual norms in the general culture. As such, book reviews make it particularly clear how much might be at stake when ordinary citizens claim the right to critique books—particularly when these citizens attract the attention of a diverse and substantial audience.
This is the moment, I think, when I should be sure that we’re all on the same page in terms of our understanding of just what online citizen book reviews are. Citizen reviews are reviews written by unpaid volunteers that are published on the Web. Reviews can be of any length, though you will probably not be surprised when I say that most online citizen reviews are briefer and less analytical than reviews featured in such venues as The New York Times Book Review. Perhaps the best known online citizen book review site is—but there are many, many others, including (where citizen reviewers fill in a seven page form organized according to genre)[10],, BookReporter.Com, and
Many individuals also host personal book review web sites—some of which have garnered considerable public attention. When I was writing the proposal for my Humanities Center project, for instance, I typed the words “book review” into Google. The first five sites that Google presented included online sites for The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, Booklist, Bookwire—and a site titled “Danny Yee’s Book Reviews.” 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. His personal Web site includes reviews for over 800 books. According to Yee’s humorously titled “Infrequently Asked Questions” web pages, in 2002 alone Yee’s site had “2.4 million page views by perhaps 900,000 people, [excluding, Yee assures readers] robots and other automated accesses as far as is possible.” Yee also maintains two mailing lists with 1500 subscribers who regularly read his reviews.
Yee is hardly the only ordinary citizen to host a personal book review Web site. There are literally hundreds, if not more, of these sites on the Web. Some sites, such as Steven Wu’s Book Reviews, Kristen Voskuil’s Book Reviews, and Steph’s Book Reviews are straightforward book review sites. Others, such as Bob Corbett’s Book Reviews, Virtual Marginalia, and the Brothers Judd are mixed sites that include reviews as well as other kinds of texts.
Given the phenomenal growth of blogs, it’s hardly surprising to learn that there are an increasing number of blogs that include citizen book reviews. Some of these blogs are a mix of reviews, personal updates, and pretty much anything the blogger wants to post. Examples include, The Elegant Variation, and Bookslut. A particularly interesting blog is The Litblog Co-op. This is a cooperative of literary bloggers who come together four times a year to choose a book to review, which they review both on the co-op’s blog and on their own blogs. This is definitely an effort to influence opinion and sales, especially since the members of the co-op intend to “pick a book from obscurity, an overlooked literary gem” to review.
If you’re like me, you may be feeling a bit exhausted—if not stunned—by all this writing. Talk about self-sponsored acts of literacy: the Internet is full of them! But why do ordinary people choose to write and read reviews of books and other products on the Web or send their thoughts out into the blogosphere via personal blogs, vlogs, and podcasts? And what are the consequences of their decision to do so?
There are several ways to address the first question. One is to look at a report published in spring 2005 under the title “Trust `MEdia’: How Real People Are Finally Being Heard” and was characterized by its authors as being “The 1.0 Guide to the Blogosphere for Marketers & Company Stakeholders.” According to this report, “peoples’ trust has shifted from authority to figures to `average people like you.’ “In fact, 56% of Americans trust only the opinions of physicians and academicians more than they trust the opinions of people like themselves” (2).[11]
The trend documented in his survey may help to explain why so many people consult online reviews when they are deciding whether to read or purchase a book or some other product.[12] But why would so many people be willing to spend so much time writing unpaid citizen reviews—particularly when many others have already reviewed a work? (Several weeks ago I checked to see how many reviews of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible—a title I chose at random—appear on that site. The number at that time was 1297.) A quick answer might call attention to the role that personal gratification and social approval play in this process. (Those who write fan fiction sometimes refer to this as “egoboo” or egoboost [Rheingold120].)[13] As you are probably already aware, “egoboo” is merely shorthand for a much more complex and situated phenomenon—one that sociologists and psychologists might find intriguing to study.
But given the enormity and intentional redundancy of the Web, how might scholars who wish to study online citizen book reviews—or online reviews of any kind—begin? strikes me as a particularly promising site to undertake such analysis. I don’t know how many of you have noticed how rich this site is—how hard it works to create a space where a community of like-minded citizens can flourish. I know that I didn’t until I began my study. Since I want to leave time for questions, my comments about will be brief, but I want to point out that it’s hard to overestimate the richness of this site for scholarly work. Since is always changing, it’s also important to acknowledge the potential frustrations and difficulties that scholarly study might entail.
The first thing to note about citizen reviews on is 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.[14] As part of Bezos’ plan to, in his words, “monetize” customers’ “eyeballs,” Bezos eventually substituted customer reviews for expert reviews (130). Initially reviewers were required to be anonymous; Amazon now encourages what the site refers to as a “Real Name” policy. For some time now, Amazon has made it possible for readers to rank reviews, and it publishes the rank of every single reviewer on its site.[15] 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— 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 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.)
The next time you go to, you might want to take some time to look around, if you haven’t already, and do so with an eye toward its community-building features. If you’ve visited Amazon recently, you’ve probably noticed that it’s collecting post-Katrina and post-Rita collections for the American Red Cross, just as it collected political contributions during the last presidential election. In February, 2005 Amazon announced a new award for innovative nonprofit organizations. As the announcement for the award states, Amazon customers can participate in the competition for the award by “vot[ing] with their pocketbooks” (“ Announces New Award).[16] In these and other ways, Amazon endeavors to create a profoundly personalized yet also multi-layered, multi-purposed community that embeds its primary mission—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 (Have you noticed, in that regard, that as of about six months ago customers can not only write reviews but also post images on
I’ve really just begun to scratch the surface of the riches that exist on’s site.[17] And this is just one site on the Web—though admittedly a large and complex one—where online citizen reviews are posted. It is the major burden of my talk today to argue that online citizen review sites represent a powerful and thought-provoking opportunity for scholars in a variety of disciplines in the humanities. A significant advantage they offer to scholars is their dependence on written text: we’re talking serious data here.
As far as I have been able to ascertain, scholars have largely thus far failed to take advantage of the rich opportunity for scholarly work that online citizen reviews provide. After a year of study, I have been able to locate only two research projects on online citizen reviews. The first was undertaken—prepare to be surprised—by a group of physicists. These physicists were interested in the physical movement of complex systems and thought they might learn something about this movement by studying the sales histories and reception of various books, as recorded at Amazon. I don’t fully understand the complexities of their research, which was reported in the journal Physical Review Letters, but I can say a bit more about it during the question and answer period if anyone is interested.[18]
The second research project of which I am aware is grounded in the humanities. Mikhail Gronas, the scholar who has undertaken this project, is a Professor of Russian Language and Literature at Dartmouth. Gronas is engaged in an ambitious effort—one that is still very much in progress—to develop a quantitative measure of literary taste of ordinary readers. To do so he is analyzing the number of stars assigned by readers to books on He is also analyzing the personal commentary provided by readers who post reviews on this site. Gronas characterizes his research as an effort to develop “a palpable, probabilistic approach to literary criticism” (Dartmouth College Press Release)l
As you have undoubtedly already noted, the two projects I have just described are grounded in quantitative studies of the data on—though both studies do attend to qualitative or interpretative issues as well. In the time remaining, I’d like to suggest some ways that scholars whose primary methodology involves textual interpretation might engage the corpus of citizen reviews that exist on the Web. One line of research is, I hope, fairly obvious, for online citizen reviews should be of intrinsic interest to scholars in cultural and Internet studies. I can easily imagine a study of citizen reviewers that would follow in the tradition of Henry Jenkins Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, a thought-provoking account of the culture of television fan culture and fan fictions, or Rosa Eberly’s Citizen Critics: Literary Public Spheres.
Eberle is a scholar of rhetoric and communication. In her study she looked at letters to the editor generated by the publication of such controversial novels as James Joyce’s Ulysses and Easten Ellis’s American Psycho. Eberle’s work engages research on publics and public spheres—something I’ll talk more about in a few moments—but it is also grounded in the longstanding tradition of rhetorical analysis. Her methodology could easily be extended to online citizen book reviews. As I have read these reviews, I have been intrigued by the various and often innovative ways that those writing citizen reviews deploy ethos, pathos, and logos in their writing. As anyone who has perused the more than 2800 reviews of Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry knows, those who contribute reviews to and other sites are also hardly wary of controversy. This is potentially significant since, according to Eberly, one difference between readers of Joyce’s work and of such later works as American Psycho is that significantly fewer contemporary readers chose to write letters to the editor about controversial works than in the past. This is most certainly not the case on
Another potential area of research is reception studies, a field that ranges from Heidi Brayman Hackel’s research on the reading practices of early modern women readers to Janice Radway’s ethnographic research on female readers of romances. Online citizen book reviews represent an exciting opportunity for those interested in studying the reading practices and responses of ordinary citizens. Given the huge number and diverse nature of online citizen book reviews, the challenge for this kind of research will be to develop methodologies and data sets that allow scholars to approach and limit their research is realistic ways.
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, these reviews—and the persons who write them—should be of interest to those studying the history and current development of the history of the book, authorship, and publishing. What does it mean that so many ordinary citizens are claiming the authority—and I hope you hear the “author” in authority—needed to publish their work on the Web? How are online citizen reviews influencing the marketplace of ideas? What new topoi—to echo an issue that Rosa Eberly discusses at some length in Citizen Critics—might scholars discover if we undertook extensive analyses of reviews posted on and other sites?
Those engaged with the work of Jurgen Habermas and related projects might also find that online citizen reviews provide a thought-provoking object of study. In his study of the formation of the development of “a polite and informed public in the early modern period,” Habermas makes special note of the role that “coffee-houses, private salons, newspapers, journals, book clubs” etc. played in this process (Bermingham 9). According to Ann Bermingham, co-editor of The Consumption of Culture 1600-1800, Habermas viewed 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 And what can we learn about the consumption and production of culture by studying the reviews that appear at this site?
Online citizen reviews could also provide compelling data for those who, like Pierre Bourdieu, are interested in those activities and “systems of classification which structure perception of the social world and designate the objects of aesthetic enjoyment” (Bourdieu xiii-xiv). In Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Bourdieu attempts to inquire into the “economy of cultural goods” (1) via a materially grounded analysis of what he terms the “conditions of existence, habitus, and life-style” (170). [19]
There are other ways in which ongoing scholarly projects might intersect with and draw upon online citizen reviews. The issues raised by Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life—where de Certau argues for a shift of scholarly attention from the producer and the product to the consumer—is one such site. But for now I hope that I have demonstrated that online citizen book reviews pose a rich resource for scholars in the humanities. 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 read 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 the humanities will take advantage of these new opportunities to listen to the world.

[1] I use the term “citizen book reviews” to distinguish reviews written by ordinary citizens from professionally written reviews. I also do so to acknowledge the important role that Rosa Eberly’s Citizen Critics: Literary Public Spheres played in my research and analysis.
[2] 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.

[3] Adam Curry’s “Daily Source Code” is an example of a podcast that has gained a wide readership. Curry developed the first podcast software, which he then released into the open source community, which further refined it.

[4] 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.
[5] 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.
[6] A t roughly the same period, “a German treatise on public health warned that excessive reading induced `a susceptibility to colds, headaches, weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, asthma, apoplexy,’ and a host of other disorders, indluding ‘hypochondria and melancholy.’ Fresh air, frequent walks, and washing one’s face periodically in cole water were prescribed for solitary readers” (Rudenstine A48).

[7] For an extended discussion of a utopian narrative see Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet.
[8] 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.
[9] 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).
[10] Reviewers on 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.
[11] This report was sponsored by Edelman, one of the world’s largest advertising and marketing firms, and Intelliseek, a company that specializes in “consumer-generated media.”
[12] It also jibes with common sense. People have always turned to friends, neighbors, and family when making important purchases. “How has your Chevy held up?,” they might ask. Or “Was that new Grishom mystery a good read? I’m been thinking of reading it myself.”

[13] Ranking reviews and reviewers is one obvious stimulus to “egoboo.” Recently, added another, spotlight reviews. Customer reviews on Amazon are usually posted in reverse chronological order, with the most recent reviews appearing first. But these are often preceded by what the site terms spotlight reviews, reviews that have been identified as exemplary in one or another way. (It is not clear how these reviews are selected.) now also includes badges that appear next to the name of highly ranked reviewers. Such badges include the following: # 1 reviewer, top 10 reviewer, top reviewer.
[14] 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, 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)

[15] How many persons have written reviews for 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. ( has not shared the method it employs to determine rankings.) On December 6, 2004 I spend several hours scrolling through’s rankings. On that day, the last ranking level that I found was the rank of 1,449,043. Thirteen reviewers shared this rank.

[16] According to the article that appeared online on February 15, 2004, “Beginning July 19, 2005, the 10 nonprofit finalist organizations will be profiled on the site, where customers and visitors will be able to make direct online contributions to their favorite organization or organizations. Donations will be accepted through September 30, 2005. The organization that receives the largest total contributions from Amazon customers will be awarded the 2005 Nonprofit Innovation Award, along with a matching grant from The 2005 honoree will be announced in October 2005” (“ Announces New Award”).

[17]In spring of 2005, for instance, Amazon joined with the Tribeca Film Festival (which is dedicated to the revitalization of lower Manhattan after 9-11-2001) announced the debut of the Tribeca Screening Room on This enabled millions of customers to view and rate as many short films as they would like using the star rating system. The announcement stated that Amazon undertook this project because it “seeks to be the Earth’s most customer-centric company” (“ and the Tribeca Film Festival”).
[18] These physicists became interested in this topic when one of their books made a sudden leap in sales rankings on 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.
[19] Bourdieu observes that the habitus is “internalized and converted into a disposition that generates meaningful practices and meaning-giving perceptions” (170). The habitus is the reason why academics as a whole prefer high culture—with the occasional popular culture passion thrown in—and why waitresses and truck drivers generally do not.