Say It with a GIF: A Discussion on Animated Book Reviews
Last November, Salon.com published an article by Laura Miller entitledÂ GIFs, memes and liveblogs; the controversial new language of book reviewing.Â Â Miller explores the customer review phenomena as it applies to books on Amazon.com and Goodreads.com. Although both web sites have reviewer guidelines, amateur book reviewers have a considerable amount of freedom to express their opinions to an international audience. Hub bloggers Carla Land, Becky O’Neil, and I share our reactions to the brave and sometimes brutal new world of customer book reviews.
What is it that drew you to this topic?
Carla: What drew me to this topic was that I think, as a blogger, that it takes a certain creativeÂ element to be able to combine words and pictures together to convey an idea. I know asÂ librarians and educators we all love the written word, but thereâ€™s something about Jean-LucÂ Picard with his head in his hands that says to me, â€œThis is an epic failâ€ better than actuallyÂ saying â€œThis is an epic fail.â€ It isnâ€™t always flippant- sometimes it can be a very sweet or poignantÂ image that says more than words can. The whole concept intrigues me!
Diane: Agreed! Images are so effective at capturing attention, and technology has made themÂ increasingly available. In her Salon article, Miller writes, “Perhaps, though, whatâ€™s unsettlingÂ about even the most inventive use of GIFs and images is the way they evoke emotion andÂ subjectivity rather than ideas and analysis.” One might argue that emotion and subjectivity haveÂ always been a part of reader response, and that words traditionally limit such responses.
Becky: I was drawn to the topic because I find visual culture very interesting, and have definitely noticed the use of GIFs on Goodreads especially, but would never expect that kind of review to become the way books are reviewed. Maybe I’m old-school that way! I see GIFs used to great comedic effect in a â€œpicture is worth a thousand wordsâ€ kind of way (the Capt. Picard facepalm is a perfect example).
What do you think of using GIFs and other images in book reviews?
Carla:Â Usually Iâ€™m okay with images being used- unless Iâ€™m on my phone and they wonâ€™t loadÂ and then I get aggravated! But Iâ€™ve spent just as much time looking for the right image as I haveÂ the right words, and I think that in certain instances, like blogs and Goodreads, and other placesÂ where people can post reviews online, an image is perfectly acceptable. I was working on myÂ personal blog last month and my husband commented that it was taking me a while… the thingÂ that was taking time was finding the right pictures to go along with my words. The latter cameÂ easily, but the pictures did not and I ended up spending a lot more time on Pinterest than I hadÂ intended (isn’t that always the way?). I really think that using visual aids in a review adds to theÂ process of creation as much as it does in a blog- and arenâ€™t some of these online reviews blogsÂ anyway?
Becky hit on a key point during our discussion- it may date us later to use gifs and memes, but itÂ makes things accessible and relevant NOW. Honestly, I’m not looking at reviews of books five,Â ten years down the line to see if I want to buy it for my collection or not. I’m looking NOW. AndÂ teens are looking NOW, too. If a book has good reviews whether it has pictures or not then it’sÂ likely to stick around for a while and get good word of mouth. I think teen books get dated reallyÂ quickly, too- not so much the fantasy and historical fictions, but books that I couldn’t keep onÂ the shelf three years ago are now sitting there gathering dust. Maybe the review looking datedÂ would be a good thing because it may clue you in that the book itself is dated? It could becomeÂ an important tool in the future.
Diane:Â Count me in as another blogger who spends way too much time looking for just the rightÂ image. Itâ€™s especially exciting when looking back at flyers I created earlier in my librarian career,Â when terms such as â€œcopy,â€ â€œcut,â€ and â€œpasteâ€ literally involved tracing paper, scissors, and glue.Â I never dreamed we would ever be able to manipulate video in such creative ways. I donâ€™t seeÂ this mode of expression going away. Itâ€™s just too much fun to make and view. If the images weÂ created today become dated, it may only mean we view them with the fond nostalgia that I feelÂ for my old flyers.
Becky: I, too, have spent an inordinate amount of time looking for JUST the right picture for a blog post or presentation. It feels enormously important, especially as we do become more and more visual and of-the-moment. I don’t know how much of our generation will start reading our book reviews solely off a screen (where we can easily get the benefit of multimedia reviews), but I have heard of a toddler poking an image in a magazine, trying to make the page react. Old-media reviews may soon be read only by old-media readers!
Itâ€™s also interesting that the author says multimedia book reviewing is in its infancy, but Iâ€™ve heard more than one person say that reaction GIFs are â€œkind of overâ€ and certain ones definitely need to stop being used. As with all things, I think we will keep our eyes upon the trendsetters — teens themselves. The article says, â€œIs it really such a surprise that an Internet review of a book for and about teenagers should be written pretty much the way teenagers write stuff on the Internet?â€ How will teens be writing about stuff on the internet next year, with echoes sure to be found in customer book reviews? I canâ€™t wait to find out!
Do you feel that professional reviews are compromised by the proliferation of customer reviews?
Carla: I donâ€™t think professional reviews are compromised as much as they are complementedÂ by customer reviews. From this librarianâ€™s point of view, reading reviews can be time consumingÂ and sometimes boring. Sometimes they can be too professional. When writing a professionalÂ review, people arenâ€™t likely to get passionate one way or another about a book. On the otherÂ hand if I see a book on Goodreads that has a bunch of teens reviewing it, even if they areÂ glib and use a bunch of silly pictures in their reviews, I’m far more likely to consider buying itÂ because I know teens are already talking about it and have strong feelings about it. And sinceÂ they are the ones we’re buying the books for, it makes sense to look at them through theirÂ eyes. When I was a teen I never looked at a professional review and I read based on word ofÂ mouth and class assignment lists. Even if Iâ€™d had access to professional reviews I doubt Iâ€™d have bothered with them. We need the professional reviews professionally, but I think having access to customer reviews helps us with trends and speaks more to everyone and not just a select group.
Diane: For one thing,Â Amazon seems to have moved towards publishing only favorable reviews fromÂ professional publications, or just quoting a “faint praise” kind of phrase from the review text.Â For example, the actual words in the professional review may have been, â€œDespite the slow start, patientÂ teen readers will love the action-packed finale,â€ but Amazonâ€™s excerpt reads, â€œTeen readersÂ will love the action-packed finale.â€ As a librarian, I love the detail of professional reviews. ButÂ as a bookseller, Amazon may only need to encourage a sale. Seems like that leaves the realÂ critiquing to the customer reviews, at least as far as the general public views it.
Becky: I agree with Carla that there is room for both. Not everyone speaks pop-culture lingo, and a professional review, while dry, can still be the best one-stop summary for plot points, red flags, a style summary, and intended and recommended audiences — answering the â€œshould I buy this?â€ question for librarians on a budget. And, of course, YALSA’s book awards and booklists are invaluable in keeping up with the best in YA literature. Customer reviews, on the other hand, by their very proliferation, can form a current map of feelings and trends that a tuned-in teen librarian will not ignore. The large grain of salt, as Diane mentioned, is the hand controlling the content. Itâ€™s worth being aware when Amazon is quoting reviews edited down to, essentially, cover blurbs — positive short phrases only. And although Goodreads is now owned by Amazon, it looks like they have not taken action on the suggestion (mentioned in the Salon article) about banning GIFs in Goodreads reviews.
Carla is currently readingÂ The Sandman and the War of DreamsÂ by William Joyce
Becky is currently readingÂ Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, PerishÂ by David Rakoff
Diane is currently readingÂ On Such a Full SeaÂ by Chang-Rae Lee