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Scoring points

Helen WhittleJanuary 14, 2013

We're well accustomed to checking out customer reviews when it comes to choosing a restaurant or making a purchase. But what about the tricky issue of deciding what to do on a Friday night?

An interior view of the Komische Oper in Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

It's easier to be critical than to be correct, they say. But from Trip Advisor to Facebook, Rotten Tomatoes to Urbanspoon, it's never been easier for us to blog, tweet, or yelp about the things we absolutely adore or positively detest.

That's all well and good when it comes to finding the perfect restaurant or buying the right car, but what about when you're looking for some cultural nourishment? A new Berlin startup thinks it has the answer.

Rod Schmid cofounded the website Livekritik to offer users the chance to write their own reviews on cultural events, from exhibitions and concerts to stand-up comedy and cabaret.

The idea is that amateur critics have no vested interest in either promoting or tearing apart an event, so they're free to be as frank as they like. The result can be a lot more helpful - and entertaining - than the staid, predictable critiques found in mainstream newspapers and magazines.

The Livekritik team: Rod Schmid (left), Karin Janner, Till Führer. Copyright: livekritik
The Livekritik team: Rod Schmid (left), Karin Janner and Till FührerImage: livekritik

While similar forums for people to post their own culture tips already exist, they've been limited until now to a particular genre like opera or art and serve a local area or community. And traditional sources of cultural criticism are getting thinner, says Schmid.

"Newspapers and magazines are retreating from small, local areas to big cities. Some people no longer have access to a culture guide about what's going on in their region," he explained.

Custom-made culture

Since going live last summer, the site now has around 1,000 active users sharing their experiences, recommendations and tips - though Schmid has much bigger plans for the site.

"We want to create a new online portal using the latest technology to stage a modern and unique dialogue about culture featuring individually tailored recommendations for our users," he said. "Newspapers and magazines can't do that."

Through cooperations with online content providers such a Kulturserver, Livekritik carries information on 70 percent of major cultural events across Germany. But ultimately, it's up to users to decide what to write about and how. The upside is that small, independent theaters and galleries have the opportunity to share the limelight alongside heavily publicized events at major institutions.

The question is, how relevant are amateur opinions when it comes to galleries, museums and concert halls context? Would a few bad reviews really put you off going to an exhibition by your favorite artist, or a gig by the band you've been worshipping for years?

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Cologne Philharmonic Photo: Horst Galuschka
Are people looking for "beautiful" art or a new cultural experience?Image: picture-alliance/dpa

In the spotlight

While the opinions aired by culture buffs on Livekritik may have a tough time persuading die-hard fans not to waste their time and money, event organizers and cultural institutions, it seems, are more interested in public opinion than the critics' anyways.

Othmar Gimpel, head of communications at the Cologne Philharmonic, prefers to judge visitor satisfaction by strength of applause and, of course, box office sales.

"The public's opinion has always been very important to us. Good reviews are great, but it's not just about pleasing critics. We stage our productions for the public, not critics," Gimpel said.

Gimpel is skeptical about Livekritik becoming an important source of feedback for cultural institutions since they're already taking note of public opinion via Facebook and Twitter - even if it's focused more on practical issues like the parking situation or the price of refreshments.

"But those things are important so we can do better next time. Now we can use social media to inform visitors when, say, there's bad traffic, or there's a program change at short notice. We can reach over 10,000 fans directly," he said.

Will all this lead to a more heavily commercialized, service-oriented understanding of culture? Never mind the art, are museums more likely to be rated on the quality of their gift sections and cafés? Will challenging works like those by Arnold Schoenberg be replaced on programs with popular, easy-to-swallow classics like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony? Gimpel doesn't think so.

"I don't think that we should underestimate audiences. There's a really sophisticated viewing public out there in Germany and a number of elite institutions catering for elite tastes. In order to attract audiences, the emphasis has to be on quality and to a certain extent variety," he said.

Consumer bite-back

Whatever the outcome, it's clear that with our smartphones and tablets, we're all becoming a whole lot more vocal about our experiences. Who hasn't sat in a restaurant or club and typed away about what a great - or horrible - time you're having, even if it is just to family and friends?

An empty street cafe
Bad customer reviews spell empty seats at cafés and restaurantsImage: deviantART/Fotolia

But those who think that online reviews are superfluous in the digital ether where everyone can log-on, tip-tap and rant to their heart's content should think again.

Research carried out by Michael Anderson and Jeremy Magruder, professors at the University of California, Berkeley, showed that customer reviews on websites such as Yelp and Tripadvisor had a direct impact on trade, regardless of the actual quality of the product.

Even scoring just a fraction less than a nearby competitor will significantly influence where a hungry diner chooses to eat. And while good reviews boost trade, one bad review can have disastrous consequences.

Whether a site like Livekritik can hold as much sway in the much more subjective field of culture remains to be seen. In any case, the next time you go to an Andy Warhol exhibition, you can finally tell the world that you've always thought his Campbell's soup cans were ridiculous.

Who decides what art is anyway? Broadening the definition of a critic can only lead to livelier, more inclusive dialogue on culture.