We compare in order to make the best decision. To do that we need to consider the opinion of both experts and crowds.
Lulu is a musical collaboration between Lou Reed and Metallica. Rarely has a new album received such extremely nasty and sustained abuse from the majority of fans and critics.
I happen to think Lulu is a dark, brooding, towering, monumental masterpiece; one of the top 10 albums I have ever heard. (Warning: this is disturbing piece of work. It is definitely not for everybody.)
Even though I'm a big Lou Reed fan, I wasn't even going to buy the album based on the initial reviews I read. Google and Amazon helped me change my mind. Imagine the pre-Google days, when I would have read one, maybe two, reviews in print. Now I could scan hundreds. With Amazon I could see what fans were saying.
I wondered how people could hate something so much. I mean, if something is really bad, the best put down is to totally ignore it. So, I figured Lulu was definitely worth a listen. That was about eight days ago and I've been listening nonstop since.
We live in an amazing time. Never before has there been such a vast source of human opinion that can be tapped with ease. The Amazon review system is a thing of beauty. It represents some of the best web design ever and it is, like most great web design, the design of words.
However, even Amazon's review system is not perfect. To mix up its order of presenting reviews it uses the "people found the following review helpful" function. This generally works much better than ranking by newest or by star rating.
The problem with Lulu is that Metallica have millions of utterly devoted fans who hate Lulu with a furious passion and love all the reviews that express the same hatred and contempt.
The result is that, at 155 reviews, all the full reviews presented on the first page were deeply negative. You have to scan the right column review snippets before you see anything positive.
If you dig a bit you see that Lulu is the ultimate polarizing album. As I write this article, there are: 20 5 star reviews, 14 4 star, 6 3 star, 4 2 star and 71 1 star. So, there's no middle ground, just two extremes, and that's a very interesting thing to discover. Amazon exudes transparency and truth in the truest sense of the word. 'Here's what people think. Make up your own mind.'
Many complain that the crowd is ignorant and that we should ignore them and listen to the experts. However, the majority of critics fell over themselves to give Lulu 1 star reviews.
I'm currently watching a superb documentary DVD box set on art by BBC's Simon Schama. (Now, Schama is what I would call a real critic.) The last one I saw was on David Turner and focused on his painting, The Slave Ship. When it was first exhibited most critics were bewildered and dismissive, with one saying it reminded them of "a tortoise-shell cat having a fit in a platter of tomatoes."
Not much changes when it comes to most critics. The experts are as much a mob as the mob is. What has utterly changed is our ability to navigate the sea of criticism.