Robin Robin van den Akker (1992) is a Lecturer in Cultural Philosophy and Coordinator which is part of the academic programme offered at Erasmus University College. He is also the founding editor of the research platform Notes on Metamodernism that performs research into modern cultural phenomena which are symptomatic for the post-postmodern condition. His research has been published in English, German, Spanish, Mandarin and Russian and appeared in journals like ArtPulse, Frieze, De Groene and Vrij Nederland. He is also a member of the Philosophical Team (Filosofisch Elftal) of the Trouw newspaper. This autumn, the academic compilation produced under his editorship, Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect, and Depth after postmodernism, will be published and he will be defending his thesis on the use of smartphones in the public space.


The myth of the origin of Facebook is well known. Supernerd Mark Zuckerberg, as Claire Hoffman once wrote in a portrait for Rolling Stone, created – coded, hacked – the software for a website called FaceMash from his student room at Harvard. Socially isolated and abandoned in love, he was aiming at ultimate revenge on anyone who failed to recognise him as, well, a great guy, an equal, if not their superior in many respects. Slightly intoxicated, that evening he wrote in his blog (quoted by Hoffman):

“I’m a little intoxicated, not gonna lie. […] The Kirkland [dorm] facebook is open on my desktop and some of these people have pretty horrendous facebook pics. I almost want to put some of these faces next to pictures of farm animals and have people vote on which is more attractive.” And an hour later: “Yea, it’s on. I’m not exactly sure how the farm animals are going to fit into this whole thing (you can’t really ever be sure with farm animals . . .), but I like the idea of comparing two people together.”

During that night, Zuckerberg wrote the software for the website and hacked a university database to take profile photos of his fellow students (for which he later only received an official warning). FaceMash proved very popular. The next day, hundreds of students registered to rate their fellows. Hot or Not? Hot or Not? Hot or Not? Times 22,000.

The rest is history (see film The Social Network, for example): Revenge of the nerd. College dropout. Facebook CEO. World Domination. Trololo.

The reason why I’m repeating this myth of origin here is that it can be regarded as one of the key moments in the birth of what can be called the online review culture. An application to rate fellow students – hot or not? – can obviously be seen as a prototype and precedent for many of our modern social interactions on social media. Take functionalities like YouTube thumbs-up, Instagram hearts, Twitter Likes, Tinder swipes, Foursquare Check-ins. And yes, Facebook’s Like button, the most successful of such rating functionalities with which we constantly share our opinions and feelings.

And that, dear reader, is one of the most important cultural formative moments of the twenty-first century. Why? Let me make it really dramatic. It means nothing less than the death of the critic and the loss of a shared idea of (to quote Plato) Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Not Hot!


em-duim-facebook-hamer-875×821 (1)

Perhaps it’s counterintuitive to link the notion of an online rating culture to Facebook’s Like button and similar functionalities. Your initial thought will probably be about websites specifically devoted to facilitating and aggregating products and services such as Iens (restaurants), TripAdvisor (travel) and RateMyTeacher (education). Next, you will think about websites where the products and services are actually bought, such as AirBnB (accommodation), Netflix (films and series) and Amazon (almost everything else). But let your third thought go to the many rating buttons – thumbs up, smiley, heart, stars – that you click on every day.

Where the like button of Facebook, TripAdvisor and Netflix are similar and start to overlap is in the democratisation of the domain that was previously reserved for the professional critic employed by a newspaper, magazine or guide. Together, the three form an ecosystem in which we are able to surf from website to application to platform whilst constantly being invited – seduced even – to rate and share our opinions – from written reviews to thumbs-up, stars and hearts.

In her book The Culture of Connectivity: a Critical History of Social Media from 2012, Professor of Media Studies José van Dijck argues that the online ecosystem (and all the various component microsystems) contain norms and values which it communicates to us, the users of social media, and thus becomes rooted in our culture. Technology is never neutral; the medium controls how we view the world and how we behave in the world.

Two tendencies are important for capturing the cultural logic which controls the way we review things. Firstly, as Zuckerberg summarised in his recent ‘Facebook manifesto’, social media is like a ‘short-form medium where resonant messages get amplified many times. This rewards simplicity and discourages nuance.’ It was a rare lucid moment (followed by the usual ideological lingo). Secondly, as Van Dijck observed, Facebook’s Like button reveals ‘an ideological predilection: it favors instant, gut-fired, emotional, positive evaluations (and by implication, negative evaluations).’ I feel that this applies to the entire ecosystem of websites, platforms and applications in which winners and losers are identified by means of thumbs-up, hearts and balls according to the popularity principle.

Because of the low transaction costs and the fairly simple level, together these tendencies ensure that the online rating culture too often simply generates ‘cheap talk’, as Ray Fisman from the Columbia Business School called it. And such cheap talk is what prices the professional critic and commentator out of the market and submerges them in the attention economy.


em-globe-wereldbol-duim-facebook-875×822 (1)

Many an evangelist from Silicon Valley will claim, based on The Californian Ideology, the dominant ideology of this tech region, that this is a good thing. This ideology concerns a framework in which, besides the sense of superiority of the hacker culture which we were introduced to in Zuckerberg’s student room, the apparently opposing ideological blocks come together in a – more or less – happy marriage: the ideas about cybernetics from the 1940s and 1950s, the hippie communes of the 1960s and 1970s and the neoliberal investors of the 1980s and 1990s. These groups find each other in the belief that non-hierarchical, horizontal interactions between equal and autonomous actors – i.e. peers – will always lead via feedback loops to dynamic networks (such as information systems, communities and markets) which tend towards a harmonious optimum: Goodness, Truth and Beauty.


em-bubble-smiley-875×694 (1)

Back to the modern day rating culture. You will now have realised that all rating functionalities – the reaction fields, the thumbs-up and the hearts, the stars and the balls – are part of an ideological apparatus in which we are pre-programmed to constantly give feedback to a dynamic network that – in theory – should lead to a harmonious optimum. I say ‘theoretically’ because this should mean that the continuous stream of online reviews, opinions and ratings should produce the most aspirational cultural expressions, the most elaborate (journalism or science-related) studies and the most literary novels, universally well reviewed – or at least universally accepted – due to, you’ve guessed it, the Goodness, Truth or Beauty that they embody. And that’s not usually the case. The problem is not so much that no distinction can be made between feedback consisting of cheap gossip or an informed opinion.

The problem is that in terms of The Californian Ideology, this distinction is by definition unimportant or even undesired. On the free market of expression, everyone is equal. For ‘hippies’, because democratisation involves the promise of non-hierarchical diversity. For venture capitalists, because consumer preferences are supposed to guide the invisible hand of the market. And for cyber gurus, because it embodies the wisdom of the crowd. And so the threshold for expressing opinions must be kept as low as possible.

A striking illustration of such low threshold dynamics is Netflix’ recent move from a ratings method based on a comment section linked to a star rating (from 1 to 5) to a review system with a binary choice between ‘like’ and ‘dislike’. The old method resembled the way a critic reaches a substantiated value judgement; the new system mobilises the rapid taste judgement, based on consumption preferences.

The reason? Too many reviewers provided arguments for their rating on the star system – although in the unnuanced, sensational terms of this short-form medium, but anyway – because they were reviewing for others, an audience. And that isn’t how it’s meant to be. “Five stars feels very yesterday now,” said a Netflix top man at a press conference. By introducing the thumbs-up system, more evaluations must be generated, so that Netflix’ algorithms can make personalised suggestions, in line with what ‘I’ like.

It illustrates that the democratisation of the value judgement, linked to the free market of expression, leads to a consumer logic whereby Goodness, Truth and Beauty is translated into what feels good, true or beautiful, is nice or not nice, for you and yours. It results in echo rooms constructed by algorithms in which we are only presented with what is easy to digest because we have already had a taste of it.

All this creates a paradoxical situation. The increased diversity of reviewers leads to an unambiguous experience of the world, built on grandstanding and pleasure. And the democratisation of the value judgement leads to the tyranny of the popular, devoid of critical comments or alternative sensibilities.


The ‘crumbling of hierarchy and expertise’ in times of social media, as journalist Suzanne Moore described it in The Guardian, has led to an existential debate about the status of the serious criticism offered by the professional reviewer or commentator. When anyone can make a judgement and share an opinion without any real knowledge of the matter, based on personal preferences and expressed in unnuanced terms and the popularity principle based on algorithms leads to the automatic link of people to preferences (in terms of goodness, beauty and truth), what is serious criticism worth?

The short answer is that serious criticism points to that which is not good, beautiful or true in the popular and moves towards what is good, beautiful or true, but not popular. It thus opens the exit of the echo room to a more varied landscape with a diverse noise. The long answer is that the true critic guards two issues which are essential for a democratic community: the well considered judgement and a shared idea of Goodness, Truth and Beauty

em-fake-facebook-duim-1280×388 (1)

The well considered judgement exists by virtue of taste preferences and knowledge of things. The true critic only reviews things that she is genuinely interested in – even loves – and about which he/she has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge. And to arrive at a well considered judgement, the critic first explores – in a self-reflexive moment –her gut reaction and delays her judgement.

She then analyses the present (How was it executed? And why exactly this way and not differently? And does it work?) and places it in a historic context (Has this been done, made, claimed before? And is this better, cleaner, more correct?). Only in the last instance does the critic compare it with her own experience. What is its impact on me? What does it mean for me? These are questions which are often not – and certainly not in that order – asked in an online review culture in which we find, as Daniel Mendelsohn described it in his A Critic’s Manifesto for The New Yorker, ‘a lot of heat, but not a lot of light’. By asking these questions, however, the real critic shows how they formed an opinion and offers the audience the opportunity to follow her or not in this judgement. She thus offer a guide for beginners, a training module, so that we can practise our own critical judgement skills.

The light that the true critic shines in an era when we tend to utter judgements via our screens (‘hot or not?’) and share in our echo room, makes us, freely interpreted, think of Plato’s allegory of the Cave. He describes a group of people living with their backs to the light, watching shadows of themselves projected on the wall, which are their reality. For Plato, only philosophers – the relevant critics – can lead these people to the source of the light and thus to real knowledge. The highest form of knowledge which can be aspired to, you’ve guessed it already, consists of an idea of Goodness, Truth and Beauty. The allegory illustrates that a community cannot exist without a shared (but dynamic) idea of exemplary behaviour in a cultural sense, the beauty in artistic sense and the truth in a journalistic and scientific sense. Because these are the kinds of shared and aspirational values which everyone can test themselves against and in which the community can recognise itself as a community.


Now that the online review culture is beginning to overshadow the true critic and we increasingly reside in our ‘cave’ type echo rooms filled with emo-simplism, we gradually lose our critical judgement abilities and a shared idea of Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Populism and polarisation await us.

What to do? I don’t have a ready made solution. Let’s start with postponing action and thinking, postponing our judgment – just when we feel the temptation to respond immediately because we think, feel that we have something important to say. Not everything needs to be immediately commented on, liked or shared; most things should first be studied, analysed and considered.

And then subscribe to newspapers, magazines and guides where critics are still active – from progressive to conservative, from left to right – so that we can start seeing and reading them again, and the whole spectrum of Goodness, Truth and Beauty.


Is this an elitist appeal for the true critic and the importance of the well considered judgement and the shared idea of Goodness, Truth and Beauty in times of social media? Yes – you bet. Got a problem with that?