Digital Culture

Death of the Critic: The Role of Goodreads and Letterboxd

Image credit: Christin Hume on Unsplash

By Ella Gauci

Whose opinion would you trust more: 3,000 members of the public or a singular reviewer? 

As a creature of habit, it seems that I am unable to watch any film on Netflix until I know that it has a rating of 3.6 stars or above on Letterboxd. Even better if the resident film bros have left a one line pithy joke – their universal sign of approval. 

But, why is it that I trust a girl named Iana’s 4 ½ star review of Olivia Wilde’s 2019 Booksmart (when all she wrote was ‘I don’t want to be hyperbolic but booksmart is the best film ever made’) more than any Guardian review? 

Scott Tobias even goes as far as to call Letterboxd a ‘self-effacing’ app. There is a degree of quiet modesty when it comes to review sites, that adds to their allure. The concept that people will write about their love for film – completely for free and off their own backs – creates an oddly comforting sense of community in a world that often feels wholly disconnected. 

There is a certain affinity in numbers – even when it comes to what we do alone. Sites like Goodreads are riding the coattails of internet phenomena, such as the rise of Bookstagram and BookTube. The general philosophy that underlies it is glaringly simple: people trust other people. Or, at least, people trust the ‘ordinary’ opinion over one that is tied with academia – stone brick, cold, and often condescending. 

Instead of trawling through a three page review in an academic journal, the 20 word summary online of books and films is more convenient than ever. No longer is the reader confined to the elite beret-wearing, cigar smoking minority – and thus the critical response to books must change with this new mass. 

Accessibility also plays a large role in how the consumer responds to such reviews. Take Michelle Dean’s review, for the Guardian, of Tara Westover’s memoir Educated. Her review is littered with descriptive phrases such as ‘episodic, meditative and repetitive’. At one point, she describes the narrative voice as being like ‘scaffolding with sheets of plastic floating off’. What does that even mean?  

Now we turn to Goodreads, where Westover’s Educated alone has over 1 million ratings with an average of 4.46 stars (pretty impressive). 

Let’s take Angela M’s review of Educated where she calls it ‘impossible to put down’ and ‘a powerful, powerful book you can’t miss’. These phrases resonate more with the general public than literary jargon. 

In a world where people can publish any thought that comes into their heads online, it is inevitable that these sites are occupied with gibberish, trolls, and people who just enjoy being hateful. But what the majority will find is that sites like Goodreads and Letterboxd are inundated with actual book and film lovers. Letterboxd and Goodreads aren’t killing the critic per se – they are redefining the writing form. One rubbish pun at a time.