Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes tell you what to think. Don't let them

These sites take the fun out of culture

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The Independent Online

The people at Apple think that you like U2. It’s understandable that they should. Long in the tooth as Bono and co might be, the band scores a formidable 78 career average on Metacritic – a website that offers an aggregate of press reviews – and Metacritic users hold it in even higher regard.

They consistently rate U2 releases more favourably than the critics. iTunes users likewise. So it’s a fairly safe bet. You (plural) enjoy U2’s music. Hence why Apple decided to embed Songs of Innocence, the band’s latest album, in every single iPhone 6 handset.

The thing is, you (singular) might not be of a mind with you (plural) on the subject of U2. Pitchfork’s Rob Mitchum gave the album 4.6 out of 10. Maybe you (singular) believe his swipe at Songs of Innocence — “emotional content left intentionally formless, vaingloriously hoping to fit around the experiences of millions” – could have used a few more claws. But here’s news for you (singular). Dissenting opinions don’t count for much in the age of the aggregator. You (plural) is king.

Websites that pulp the opinions of large numbers of people and then produce an easily digestible average have gained a hold over a number of cultural industries. Film is covered by Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB; games, as well as music, by Metacritic; books, the Omnivore; travel, Trip Advisor. I find all of these handy. But their claim to provide an ‘objective’ answer to subjective questions – is this film good? Is that place worth a visit? – is shaky to farcical.

Still, it matters in commercial terms, and increasingly so. This year Amazon US began to offer Metacritic scores on its games listings; iTunes links to Rotten Tomatoes’ "Tomatometer" for anyone browsing its film selection: as a synthesis of supposedly valuable opinions, these ratings might be a better guide to whether or not you should buy something than box office takings, but not by much.

An average can’t be literally “wrong”, but it can be distorted by a number of factors: the reviewers chosen, the changing of tastes over time, the way polarising films, games or books become – crunched down - simply “average”.

I can assure you that Misery, the 1990 film made of a Stephen King book, is one of the least enjoyable things committed to celluloid in human history; iTunes says it’s a Classic, IMDB gives it 7.8 out of 10, Rotten Tomatoes 88 per cent. Collating the views of hundreds of travellers, Trip Advisor claims that the Beirut Souks are among the top 15 places to visit in the city; perhaps they are, but only if you’re the kind of person who’ll travel hundreds of miles to mooch around a gleaming, sterile shopping mall.

The rule of the average, I’d say, takes the fun out of cultural life. It’s hard to argue with the hive mind, but I’ve three things to say to it: 1) humans aren’t bees 2) some opinions are more valuable than others, and 3) you really need to rethink your opinion of U2.

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