Magazine article The Spectator

Where's the Quality Control?

Magazine article The Spectator

Where's the Quality Control?

Article excerpt

A time there was, not so long ago, when the Internet was going to be mankind's most glorious intellectual tool. Whatever we were looking for, it would appear on our screens within that unit of time known as a mouse-click. The complete works of Shakespeare? No problem. The complete critical commentary thereupon? Easy. Except that there was, and remains, a problem. There is no censorship, no filtering process, so that the seemingly deeply serious but actually quite mad essay on, say, the psychological significance of the colour purple in Cymbeline which might be flashed to the desk of some unsuspecting undergraduate is in danger of being taken at face value. Though maybe that's not as dangerous as being able to find out how to make dirty bombs (using an old washing-up liquid container, no doubt) or poison your granny.

Nowadays this fundamental lack of quality control conspires with the fact that anyone gifted with a modicum of nerdishness and patience and with the right programmes to hand can create a site that looks reasonably professional. It's not rocket science. I know, because I am a closet nerd and have done it myself. My project, conceived in a dangerously unbusy phase of my career, was to have been the arts pages to end all arts pages. I would publish reviews, listings, links, interviews, features, think-pieces on all the performing arts. I would easily attract advertisers. I could sell web space to artists and performers to help the income stream. The site would buzz. Others were, and still are, encouraging, and indeed the site still exists, though it's been on ice for a while now. The problem was that, although willing for a while to work for nothing myself, I had no money to pay anyone else, and found it difficult to attract collaborators merely with offers of sharing the company.

What I did find easy, however, was securing the services of a certain kind of contributor to write concert and opera reviews. (We didn't get as far as the other performing arts.) Most of these people were generous, deeply committed volunteers, willing to go to concerts, even to pay for their own tickets, and to offer me their copy gratis. But the sad fact was that most of what was sent to me needed so much editorial care and attention before it reached anything like the literary standard I demanded that it would almost have been quicker to go to the concert myself. What was worse, much was written from the perspective of the fan rather than the critic. The experience reminded me that writing about classical music and its performance, describing the shaping of sounds and their ramifications, is not an easy task. Writing about politics must be a doddle in comparison.

Yet this variety of amateur music criticism is what is most prominent and prevalent on the Internet, although there are honourable exceptions, such as the New York-based Andante.com. (I declare an interest: from time to time they use me.) Other sites, more slickly presented than my own and definitely more frequently updated - MusicWeb publishes a clutch of new CD reviews by their presumably unpaid contributors each day - should perhaps publish a warning about the lack of discrimination, literary and critical, in their content. Nevertheless, their writers are often welcomed into the ranks of the mainstream critical press by performing organisations eager for any attention they can get. The fact that their reviews are often crammed with hyperbole or sweeping judgments is not seen as a problem.

Sour grapes, you will be thinking, because others have succeeded in cyberspace where thus far I have failed. …

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