Sens Critique: Social Book and Culture Reviews, the French Way

In Europe by Olivia Snaije

By Olivia Snaije

PARIS: “It’s all about de-materialization,” says Clément Apap, co-founder of Sens Critique (Critical Sense), a new virtual library for books, films, TV series, graphic novels and music –- which launched in December and has already attracted 85,000 users.

Users can join Sens Critique for free or simply adopt the site as something akin to a cultural magazine. Internet users serve as the critics, and recommend and rate books, films, graphic novels and music. Quotes from journalists and professional bloggers appear next to a book or CD, with a link provide to go through to their site or blog to read the rest of the article. The site employs the “Wiki principle,” and is monitored by the team.

Apap and his partners took inspiration from Twitter to create what they call “Eclaireurs”, or scouts, who can be followed on the site for their cultural recommendations. The idea behind the site was to be able to locate one’s “library everywhere, at any time, to know what I want to read, what I’ve read, what other people are reading. We haven’t invented anything, we are just giving people the tools to use word of mouth suggestions . . . the goal is to discover people with whom we have cultural affinities.” Exhibitions or concerts were not included on the site because they are not “renewable experiences” — each concert or show is unique whereas a book or a music CD remains the same.

Apap and his partners Guillaume Boutin and Kevin Kuipers launched Sens Critique after nine months of beta testing. A self-described cultivated, sociable geek, Apap takes care of the communications side of the company as well as writing and editing, while Kuipers manages the technical, and Boutin focuses on financial aspects. The trio has previously developed the immensely popular gaming site, Gamekult in 2000 and sold it in 2007 to CNET Networks for eight million euros. The French multimedia and computer company LDLC was a majority shareholder, but the earnings still afforded Apap and his partners the luxury to take their time developing the concept for Sens Critique as well as the “ergonomics” of the site, making it as user-friendly as possible.

Initially, the demographics have skewed to users 35 and under and Clément Apap sees himself, more or less, as the prototype for the Sens Critique user: “You can’t go to a friend’s house anymore and rifle through their DVD or CD collections since everyone buys what they need online. My entourage isn’t an exception, and I don’t illegally download either,” said Apap, although he admits to being “old school” and still liking printed books. “I’m also big user of Facebook and Twitter, but they’re not specialized in culture.”

Apap says he has discovered things about friends that he never knew, such as their taste in literature or the fact that one of his associates loved gangster films, but had never seen The Godfather. He himself has discovered the joys of the graphic novel, which he previously thought were confined to Tintin or Asterix.

Sens Critique asks new users for their sex, age and zip code, details that members can choose to reveal or keep private. The details are used to track their likes and dislikes and cull statistics about, for example, Michel Houellebecq’s new book -– a favorite on the site’s book page. These statistics should interest publishers, record or film distribution companies and Apap is not averse to selling data in the future. Sens Critique will rely mainly on ads, which Apap says will be expensive and discreet. There will also be affiliations on each page for Amazon, or FNAC and other e-companies. “We are the interface between iTunes or Amazon, or a publisher and a record company.”

For the book section, Apap says there was a tremendous amount of work done on the database: “We brought together, for example, a work of Victor Hugo in all editions, whether hardback or paperback, on a single document.”

A free iPhone app will be ready shortly and Apap and his partners are looking into developing an English or German version of Sens Critique. “The technology has already been set up but we want to take our time and do things intelligently. We know what the buzz is in France, but it won’t be the same in the UK or Germany so we’re not going to mix everything together. Culture is specific to a population, especially where literature is concerned.”

In the meantime Apap says he wants the site to become “indispensable” for French users. “Imagine, when you’re leaving the cinema, you can immediately give the film you saw a mark, or see what other people thought of it . . . in the end it’s all about cultural contribution.”

DISCUSS: What are the Best International Social Reading and Criticism Sites?

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.