Right, I said in the 'Is Dissensus dead? thread that new threads were in order, so let's have it.
I like reading reviews of things. Music, films, books, theatre, videogames, restaurants, whatever - I lap them up. (I seem to recall devouring issues of Which? magazine whilst awaiting dentistry.) Reviews are a good idea - you can't possibly hope to keep abreast of every new thing that comes about in any given field, but someone will have seen/heard/watched/eaten it, and if they can get their thoughts down eloquently then you can choose to investigate further or ignore the thing in question.
A good review should present you with both facts and opinion, and ultimately allow you to make an informed decision whether the thing will be of interest - even if they've slated it, the descriptive/facts-based part of the review ought to be enough for you to judge (allowing for your own personal taste). But I find that reviews are getting worse and worse these days, for a number of reasons:
Ratings. I can accept this for something like hotels (or McDonalds staff), because there are clear and discrete criteria that have to be met to achieve each star ranking. Fair enough. But the need for a score out of 5 (or 10) for films, games or music baffles me. What is a 4/5 album? Is there a definitive yardstick against which the thing you're reviewing can be measured, thus ensuring it is a 4? No. I strongly dislike the application of an abstract, non-tangible measure to reviews - not only do they absolve the lazy from reading the actual meat of the review (the text) but it contributes to the Metacritic-driven monetization of review-based pay and bonus. (If you're not familiar with Metacritic, I'll come back to it another time, but it is an 'aggregator' and is ostensibly a good idea but is actually horrific.)
Also, ratings would be better if anyone actually used the scale in any meaningful way. I stopped getting Muzik magazine because, although they used a 5-point scale (six if you include giving things zero), nothing ever got less than 3/5, and therefore I never knew how to differentiate between records. If you're pretending everything's average to good, what is the point? (Presumably so as not to offend anyone in the 'scene' and ensure you keep getting sent free promos.) There are a few honourable exceptions when it comes to using the full range (Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian springs to mind, as does Swells (RIP)), but not many.
Consensus. Why is this thread called '4 Stars'? Because that is the default setting of nearly all reviewers, in any industry. Look at almost any promo poster for a film - it's littered with 4 star 'reviews' (in fact just the "****" and the name of the 'journalist'). Yes, obviously the distributor isn't going to proudly trumpet 1-star reviews, but there genuinely aren't any - everyone gives everything the same rating. But not only that, they give the same review. It is usually a regurgitated press release with, at best, a paragraph of 'opinion' at the end.
So why the hegemony of 4 stars? I think it's fairly simple: most reviewers are in collusion with their respective industry to sell tickets or downloads or whatever. Nearly all publications and websites are reliant on the generosity and/or advertising of their respective industry to ensure they actually get to review the thing before the public gets access to it. Film reviewers get preview screenings, music mags get promo CDs, etc. As above, the public are used to everyone marking from 3/5 upwards - 3 stars is effectively the minimum score. 4 stars implies better than average, enough to make the public think "oh, that's probably ok then". Giving 3 stars will piss off the distributor, who will subsequently remove you from their mailing list, or stop inviting you to previews, or other restaurants in their chain; or worse, stop advertising with you, meaning you can't afford to publish. (Even if you do give poor reviews, the vast majority of sales (film tickets, CDs, games) are in the first week of release, so by taking you out of the chain, any subsequent reviews of yours which slate the company's thing aren't in the public domain until after the thing's release, so the negative impact on sales is minimised.) Therefore the ubiquity of 4 stars - enough to tempt the public, enough to satisfy the industry, enough for the reviewer to keep their job and stay on the freebies list. It's a pretty open secret that nearly all the staff of a certain videogames magazine walked out when their publisher agreed, in return for exclusive advertising, that no games from a certain company could be given less than 7/10. Many mags and websites, of course, agree to deals like these - if you want to get upfront coverage, glowing reviews of their previous output is going to help. Beware anything which says 'Exclusive!' on it - 'compromised' is more accurate.
Hedging. The reviewers are trying to second-guess their audience, and not giving their own opinion, but rather what they think the audience expects (based on a mix of hype, previous iterations of the series, reputation, etc). For instance, the NME (yeah, I know, but it's a good example) gave the second Strokes album a gushing review and 10/10, because at the time they were hugely popular, on the cover most weeks and basically selling the mag single-handedly. Their readers loved the band, so obviously the album was great, wasn't it? Nope. Their career nosedived and it is the scourge of bargain bins everywhere. Staff of that era have quietly admitted to being lenient on it for fear of a backlash. Other examples would be the near-universal praise for Driver 3 (videogame-wise) and Star Wars: Phantom Menace (film-wise) - they were the next in hugely popular and successful franchises, the audiences were expecting them to be good, why confound them? Hmm, because it's your job as a reviewer to be accurate and honest, perhaps? Gits.
Cliché. This pisses me off no end. Any review containing any of the following phrases is basically shorthand for "I've given this only the most cursory amount of my time and have chucked out the required word-count as fast as I can, and am now hanging around waiting to get paid." Again, in order to stay on the freebie list and go drinking with PR people, reviewers are prone to saying things like:
"On acid" = this is beyond my frame of reference and I haven't the vocabulary or imagination to describe it. It might be a bit 'wacky', too.
"If you liked X, you'll like this too" = I hated this but don't want to say so, so to avoid giving a critical opinion, I'll just make a lazy comparison instead.
"It's like X crossed with Y" = ditto, but I not only hated it, I didn't really understand it.
"Great for fans of this style" = mind-fuckingly average.
"A real improvement over the last one" = which I managed to fob off onto a colleague so I didn't have to slag it.
I'm aware I have generalised here quite substantially, but I believe the above to be largely true of both mainstream and specialist media. I think this is particularly endemic on the internet, because there is no cover price to make up for lost advertising, but it does get everywhere. Obviously there are some journos on Dissensus, and I'd be interested to hear your opinions especially, but anyone's thoughts on this matter would be welcome.