The Ratings-Mad Society

The other day, at WalMart, where I do my grocery shopping, since, like or not, it’s the best grocery store in 60 miles, the check-out clerk informed me that, if I went to the site listed on my receipt and rated my latest visit to WalMart, I’d be eligible for a drawing for a $5,000 WalMart gift card.  The next day, at Home Depot, I had a similar experience. That doesn’t include the endless ratings on Amazon, B&N, and scores of retailers, not to mention U-Tube, Rate Your Professor, and the student evaluations required every semester at virtually every college or university. Nor does it include the plethora of reality television shows based on various combinations of “ratings.”

It’s getting so that everything is being rated, either on a numerical scale of from one to five or on one from one to ten.  Have we gone mad?  Or is it just me?

Ratings are based on opinions.  Opinions are, for the overwhelming majority of people, based on their personal likes and dislikes… but ratings are presented for the most part as a measurement of excellence.

Yet different people value different things. My books are an example. I write for people who think and like depth in their fiction… and most readers who like non-stop action aren’t going to read many of my books, and probably won’t like them… and those are the ones who give my books one star with words like “boring”… or “terminally slow.”  By the same token readers who like deep or thoughtful books may well rate some of the fast-action books as “shallow” [which they are by the nature of their structure] or “improbably constructed” [which is also true, because any extended fast-action sequence just doesn’t happen often, if ever, in real life, and that includes war].

Certainly, some of the rationale behind using ratings is based on the so-called wisdom of crowds, the idea that a consensus opinion about something is more accurate than a handful of expert opinions.  This has proven true… but with two caveats – the “crowd” sampled has to have general knowledge of the subject and the subject has to be one that can be objectively quantified.

The problem about rating so many things that are being rated is that for some – such as music, literature, cinema, etc. – technical excellence has little bearing on popularity and often what “the crowd” rates on are aspects having nothing to do with the core subject, such as rating on appearance, apparel, and appeal in the case of music or special effects in the case of cinema.

Thus, broad-scale ratings conceal as much as they reveal… if not more.  Yet everyone with a product is out there trying to get some sort of rating? Obviously, those with a product want a high rating to enhance the salability of their product or service.  But why do people/consumers rely so much on ratings?  Is that because people can’t think?  Or because that they’re so inundated with trivia that they can’t find the information or the time they need to make a decision?  Or because the opinion of others means more than their own feelings?

Whatever the reason, it seems to me that, in the quest for high ratings, the Dr. Jekyll idea of applying the wisdom of the crowd has been transformed into the Mr. Hyde insanity of the madness of the mob.


6 thoughts on “The Ratings-Mad Society”

  1. rehcra says:

    Of course under the instances you gave they are also trying to get you to visit their online sites. While iterating that they care about what you think about them. So I would say quantifying their customers views is mostly about marketing not about the actual rating or improving over all performance/public opinion.


  2. Several of those sites are only for opinion surveys. So any marketing is in the nature of trying to convince me that they care, and not actually trying to entice me to buy anything on the site, because there’s nothing to buy.

  3. Brian Kelman says:

    When at the checkout, I put a well practiced look of interest on my face, nod at the appropriate places and then can’t be bothered wasting any more brain cells thinking about it once I leave the store. It takes practice, but well worth the initial effort to get the routine down pat.

    For the most part I don’t put too much into subjective ratings disguised as objective authority. See them for what they are and move on is what I do.

    I do find the ratings and comments by consumers on Amazon to be a benefit though. For example, if I’m looking at a music CD, I’ll read the 1 Star comments and the 5 Star comments. I’ll pick out about two from each and then click on other CD’s they have reviewed to see what they do/don’t like. Then it is off to YouTube to see a video or two from the album in question. By then I know whether to buy, reject, or put in the Wish List so I can procrastinate over the first two choices. I have reviewed some things on Amazon, but I am usually too lazy to get around to it.

    Don’t worry. You have not gone mad. It’s just everyone around us. 🙂

  4. R. Hamilton says:

    I don’t know enough statistics to be sure what would be a meaningful survey vs just a popularity contest. But it might not matter; if there is some evidence that satisfaction correlates with spending, it’s enough for a business to know in what areas they’re doing better or worse. They may not _always_ check whether they’re getting their money’s worth out of surveys, but I think it likely that the larger ones that have been around for awhile probably do, if in a manner that reflects the dominance in a large organization of procedure over wisdom.

    My criticism is quite different. In a small store, where the store manager can see everything going on, a survey would be unnecessary. Even in the probably rare larger but non-chain store, the department managers could do the same. By those means they could observe, listen, assist, when needed apologize, and have roughly the same information if not more, by far more human means. But that takes a balance of practical and personal skills that few enough in retail are expected to have anymore; except for high-end stores and a few struggling locally owned businesses, it seems that any cheap warm body will do.

  5. Joe says:

    There is a third caveat to the wisdom of the masses – feedback loops. If new individuals are given information about previous responses, that data will skew the new responses and create clustering effects that destroy the averaged-out “wisdom” of truly individual polling.

    Seems particularly relevant here in an election year, considering our love of opinion polls and exit polling.

  6. Wine Guy says:

    Ever notice that there’s now only “Like,” and no “Dislike” or “Neutral?”

    Heaven forbid that we actually not approve or dislike something. Heaven forbid that we have a contrary opinion and the intestinal fortitude to speak it and stick to our guns when challenged about our opinion.

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