The new rules for reviewing media  MAR 16 2010

I've noticed an increasing tendency by reviewers on Amazon (and Apple's iTunes and App Stores) to review things based on the packaging or format of the media with little regard shown to the actual content/plot. Here are two recent examples.

Reviews for the theatrically released versions of The Lord of the Rings on Blu-ray are mostly negative -- the aggregate rating is 1.5 out 5. These are award-winning movies but the reviews are dominated by people complaining about New Line's decision to release the theatrical versions before the extended versions that the True Fans love. A representative review:

If I were reviewing the movie itself it would get a five. This review is for the product, as listed -- in other words, I DO NOT RECOMMEND BUYING THIS PRODUCT/DVD. This product is being created FOR NO OTHER REASON than to dupe people into buying this movie twice...again.

Similarly, the early reviews for Michael Lewis' The Big Short are dominated by one-star reviews from Kindle owners who are angry because the book is not available for the device. (thx, jason)

I have always enjoyed Michael Lewis' books and was looking forward to reading The Big Short. With no availability in the US on Kindle, however, I will pass until the publisher/Amazon issue is cleared up. I actually believe that the availability of an item is relavent when giving it a review.

Compare this with traditional reviewers who focus almost exclusively on the content/plot, an approach that ignores much about how people make buying decisions about media today. Packaging is important. We judge books by their covers and even by how much they weigh (heavy books make poor subway/bus reading). Format matters. There's an old adage in photography: the best camera is the one you have with you. Now that our media is available in so many formats, we can say that the best book is the one on your Kindle or the best movie is the one on your iPhone.

Newspaper and magazine reviewers pretty much ignore this stuff. There's little mention of whether a book would be good to read on a Kindle, if you should buy the audiobook version instead of the hardcover because John Hodgman has a delightful voice, if a magazine is good for reading on the toilet, if a movie is watchable on an iPhone or if you need to see it in 1080p on a big TV, if a hardcover is too heavy to read in the bath, whether the trailer is an accurate depiction of what the movie is about, or if the hardcover price is too expensive and you should get the Kindle version or wait for the paperback. Or, as the above reviewers hammer home, if the book is available to read on the Kindle/iPad/Nook or if it's better to wait until the director's cut comes out. In the end, people don't buy content or plots, they buy physical or digital pieces of media for use on specific devices and within certain contexts. That citizen reviewers have keyed into this more quickly than traditional media reviewers is not a surprise.

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