Monday, November 4, 2013

The Evolution of the Book Review (part two)

In my last post I discussed how the traditional book review is being updated in the digital age. Here, I would like to look at the way the book review is evolving from a text medium into a multimedia genre with a strong social component. Once again, there are new contexts to apply to this evolution of the book review.

Reviewing in Digital Culture
Those reviewing books online are doing so in a context in which many other things are being rated and reviewed: consumer goods and digital content of every variety, as well as services, sellers, suppliers, and companies. Contributing one's opinion about something viewed or purchased online has become a primary kind of online activity. We "like" things on Facebook, +1 them on Google+, and we assign star ratings to movies on Netflix or to books on Goodreads. We are even reviewing things indirectly simply by expressing our feelings about things. A good deal of time is spent on "sentiment analysis" of consumers as they discuss various brands or products through the various social media (such as Twitter):

The Sentiment 140 service searches Twitter and returns sentiment analysis on tweets for a given brand.
Note how the red-coded negative review is inaccurate.
Note that one can rate the accuracy of the rating (in grey)

But we are not simply clicking on ratings or indirectly reviewing. A lot of user-generated content is in fact some kind of evaluation or opinion.  In the following review from Amazon (of an alarm clock on wheels that you must chase across your bedroom to turn off), a customer contributed both a text review and a brief video review. This is an example of a hybrid review. It carries the ease and quickness of brief text, with the immediacy and emotional appeal of a video that conveys both a clear sense of how the thing works and how the customer felt about it.

A customer review (text + video) for "Clocky Alarm Clock on Wheels" - Amazon

Entire networks are devoted to reviewing, such as epinionsProductWiki and Buzzillions. Angie's List is a service that reviews local service providers (plumbers, handymen, etc.). Some of these services or networks encourage community building, some use systems that rate the raters ("Was this helpful?"). Reviewing, it turns out, can be a way of building one's personal brand or online presence. A good reviewer can achieve enormous clout within a given niche community online.

Use of Images
We are increasingly becoming primarily visual in our literacy. A good review will use images and not just text.

The above review used screen shots, intermixed with brief text, to walk through a review of a Japanese anime show being recommended. 

Even if one is not reviewing something visual, one can still include images to bring interest into the review. If nothing more, a book review today should include an image of the book cover. The following is a review section of a blog (bldgblog) recommended by Kevin Kelly on Google+ that focuses on reviewing non-fiction books.

Video Reviewing
Video-based reviewing is increasingly common online, and it carries with it the emotional appeal of audio and video, and of connection with real human beings.  ExpoTV is built around video reviews of consumer products (and has a point system to earn rewards through reviewing). Amazon, as indicated above, has been doing video reviews for many years. And YouTube is littered with reviews of everything from video games to diet systems.

In other words, although there are outlets for very traditional kinds of book reviews, it's important to think in terms of the types of reviews and reviewing activities that are most common in digital culture (and not intellectual or print-based cultures). And therefore, if you want your ideas about books to be heard or to make a difference, play to the ways reviewing works online today.

As I mentioned in the last post, we need to calibrate our reviewing to the speed, brevity, and casualness of the dominant cultural medium. This means not overworking our reviews in terms of length or in terms of time and effort to produce them.

Review Value vs Production Values
Reviewing online has a primarily pragmatic orientation, often built around helping people make a decision whether to purchase or select something. In other words, the production value of a video review isn't as important as its general value in helping people to make decisions or take actions. In short, you don't have to impress people with mad editing skills. David from Arizona demonstrates how you can do super crunches on a yoga ball, all while a blank TV runs in the background of a messy apartment and while the sound quality of his review is tinny and unprofessional. So what? We get the sense of what one can do with the yoga ball, and that's all we need.

It is possible today (despite criticism of digital culture claiming everything is becoming superficial) to have long form reviews. However, as I have discussed in outlining a tiered approach to content, one must orient one's reviews toward the rapid exchange of posts available in mainstream social media. Sure, you can make an insightful 30-minute video review of your favorite novel. But the two-minute version is more likely actually to be viewed. You can have both, of course. But expect to get most viewers only to view the very short version, and a few very interested people to click through to longer form content.

How long should a book review be? This depends on the medium and the location for sharing the review. On a place like Goodreads, reviews are in text form and are from a paragraph to a screen or two in length. In video book reviews, lengths vary a lot. Longer video book reviews tend to take place within channels or communities of book lovers who are willing to indulge longer reviews.

Here is a Vimeo book reviewing channel called "In the Stacks" that features 15-second videos. What do you think-- is it enough?

Here is a nearly five-minute review from Book Reviewers Club.

I urge my students to stay within the 90-second to two-minute length. Keeping to this amount of time will force them to cut right to the chase on main ideas and their on evaluative claim. Moreover, I don't want them to spend more than a couple of hours altogether in producing and circulating their video book review.

Creative Possibilities
Producing media-rich content can quickly turn into a time suck. This is one reason I have emphasized low production values and brevity. But with those provisos, I also wish to invite my students to be creative with their book reviews. It is possible to do something different than the talking-head-holding-a-book video book review. One can

  • Make a screencast of a PowerPoint or Prezi presentation about the book
  • Create an animation (such as through the free online tool, Xtranormal)
  • Stage a scene from the book with actors, puppets, etc.
  • Make a video of attempting to explain the book to someone unfamiliar with its contents or importance
I have seen great student videos that use paper and hand-drawn signs effectively. It doesn't have to be about learning Adobe After Effects or getting a crash course in a movie making software program. Creativity isn't always about the tech.

Socializing Your Video Book Review
I would like my students to create a brief video review (90-seconds to two minutes) and to disseminate this through social media. Rather than directly uploading the video to their blog (which has a limited audience), they should create a YouTube account or channel and upload their video with appropriate metadata or labels. In addition to whatever other tags they wish to append to their video, they should include "digiculture326" so that when that link is clicked (or when one searches YouTube with that tag), our class videos will appear.

But that is not all. Students should share the YouTube video they've uploaded to Google+, again adding hashtags as appropriate so that those searching for their book or their topic will come across the Google+ post (which will take them to the YouTube video).
Someone sharing on Google+ a link to their video review on YouTube
Note how he combines a PowerPoint with video of himself talking
I want students to search for existing reviews (video or otherwise) of the book they have just reviewed, and within comments (or wherever appropriate) to provide a link to their video review on YouTube ("I've also reviewed this book. Check out my video review [URL]").

Books as Bridges
Books have always been gathering points for people of similar interests. But as we are able to use today's social media to expose to broader publics what are reading has been, we are able to bridge in ways and to groups or individuals we might never have known of or realized the value of connecting with.

Books provide common content around which people can build contacts and community. By connecting one's review to one's social graph online, this opens opportunities to create academic, professional, or personal relationships with other people who care about the same ideas. And perhaps this is the most interesting evolution of the book review. It isn't that books are now reviewed in multimedia formats; it's that they more effectively become points of connection among people.