Authority Figures: Movie Talk and the Rise of Review Culture

I like to watch movies. I also like to watch people who have watched movies talk about the movies … even…

It’s a kind of FOMO, I suppose. The internet has conditioned us toward hot takes, so when it seems like everyone else has thoughts about the latest dollop of pop culture that blorps out into the public consciousness, I want to keep up. And you probably do too. You need to be able to talk about Star Wars or Game of Thrones around the kombucha cooler. You need to have an opinion on it.

It’s something Holt, the media studies professor, calls “review culture.”

“There are all these ways in which we’re being led around by these reviews and are engaging with reviews and participating or creating reviews,” Holt says. “You’re encouraged all the time to rate this and rate that and take this survey and it seems like it’s part of that larger kind of dynamic that’s taking place. You’re pressured to participate.”

The loudest voices, of course, are the ones who care the most. Fandom has always been passionate, but social media has intensified the conversations we have about entertainment just by dint of sheer volume. Even talk about superheroes and space wizards can feel like life or death when enough people express their fervor. Surrounded by that cacophony, we want something—or someone—to help us cut through the noise.

I’ve been sculpting my own opinions while a bunch of other people have their hands on the mold.

“If you are middle-of-the-road, people will lock onto a strong opinion whether you want them to or not,” Jack Packard from RLM says, talking about audience reaction to one of his own videos. Then he adds, “They don’t want ambiguity. They don’t want both sides-ism. They want tribalism and they want it one way or the other.”

Either you hate The Last Jedi or you love it. Either you hate the last season of Game of Thrones or you love it (OK, chances are you hate it). There’s no room for nuance on the internet. Spend enough time there and it can feel like there’s no room for nuance in your own brain either. The strongest take wins.

When faced with this deluge of media, we curate our own gatekeepers, choosing whom we trust to deliver and decipher what we’ll like. I’ve always loved conversation around film, but what I’m starting to realize is that I’ve been sculpting my own opinions while a bunch of other people have their hands on the mold.

“It’s easier and more convenient and, in a way, less effort and more entertaining, to just kind of siphon all of your information through people that you know,” says Shannon Strucci, a YouTuber who specializes in film analysis and internet culture. “You like their sense of humor, and you like their opinions, and you look up to them. Agreeing with them feels validating.”

The result can be a sort of feedback loop, where our opinions are influenced by critics we admire, which then drives us to seek out that same kind of affirmation from them when something new comes out. (Helloooo filter bubble.) Normally, being able to bounce thoughts off other people should balance you out. Discussion, even about trivial things like the latest superhero show on Netflix, is important. We can often best clarify ideas by talking about them with other people, workshopping them into an actual opinion. But when you only experience a conversation from the sidelines, you aren’t really processing things for yourself.

Me Without YouAs we outsource our memory to search engines and augment our mating rituals with algorithms, it stands to reason that flooding ourselves with other people’s conversations might affect the way we formulate opinions. If YouTube can cause viewers to seesaw across the political spectrum, then surely it can sway how they feel about the latest Star Wars spinoff.

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