This week, Netflix replaced its long-held five-star rating system with a simpler thumbs-up/thumbs-down interface. What Netflix loses in granularity, the company hopes to make up for in accuracy as people feel less obligated to five-star Oscar bait and more willing to thumbs-up the Adam Sandler film they just shamefully watched. Let’s be honest, though: Netflix ratings were mostly useless. Not only because your college roommate’s girlfriend’s cousin’s Law & Order obsession threw off your recommendations, but also because the way we review things online doesn’t always align with our actual enjoyment of a product. The average online review apparently awards 4.3 out of 5 stars, which is a wildly generous assessment of internet media’s quality in 2017. But are there any ranking systems out there that buck the trend and actually provide valuable (or at least entertaining) feedback? Below, we review our favorite systems for online ratings and rankings.
The 11th Instagram Like
Victor Luckerson: The 11th like on an Instagram post used to function as a kind of aggregate thumbs-up. Get 10 or fewer hearts and the post is captioned with a boring list of friends and families who care about you. Once you hit 11, though, those humans with lives, loves, and fears were transformed into a single, satisfying number quantifying your popularity. For an Instagram newbie, the 11th Like was a signal that you’d made a popular post. For a veteran, it was an early sign of the kind of Like velocity you could expect a given photo to achieve. It was a game within the game of competing for social media kudos, and it’s a shame that all Instagram posts now include both names and numbers (as in, “Victor Luckerson and 5 others like this”).
Twitter Reply/Retweet/Like ratio
Michael Baumann: The most elegant statistical expression in sports is baseball’s triple-slash line: batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage. Higher numbers are better for all three, but they interact in such a way that you can tell not only how good the hitter is, but what kind of hitter he is, just by looking at it. Ichiro (.313/.356/.405) — a good contact hitter, but not a lot of walks or power. Adam Dunn (.237/.364/.490) — not a good contact hitter, but walks a ton and, with a slugging percentage more than double his career batting average, has power to match.
So too with the three engagement numbers for tweets: All three are good by themselves, but the way they interact tells you just as much as the raw totals. An even RT-to-fav ratio is ideal. Lots of likes but few RTs either designates news of a personal nature — people might want to acknowledge your newborn child, but not necessarily spread it to their own followers — or a joke that people are too ashamed to admit they think is funny, which is a phenomenon I’m well acquainted with.
But a tweet with relatively few RTs or favs, but a ton of replies? That’s what happens when you fuck up so badly people (1) are compelled to share it but (2) not without adding commentary via quote tweet, and people who don’t share it themselves feel compelled to yell at you nevertheless. I have nightmares about a 327/4/13 reply/RT/like ratio I saw a few months ago. I went back to look for the tweet to link it here, but not only is the tweet gone, so is the entire account. Some losses you can’t come back from.
Alyssa Bereznak: First off, I despise the fact that review systems are built into almost every corner of the internet. Assigning a range of stars and numbers to films, TV, music, and restaurants make sense, yes. But doing the same thing for the anonymous Amazon seller who ships you pet food every couple of weeks feels especially silly. I don’t want to be forced to score such a simple transaction on such a nuanced scale when the whole point of most online transactions is efficiency. More than anything, I think the overinflation of online ratings can be blamed on the fact that we are too often asked to judge non-noteworthy experiences, and as a result we round up.
As for food and entertainment, I’m a fan of the good ole Siskel and Ebert method: thumbs-up and thumbs-down. It requires you to make a snap judgement based on a gut feeling, record it, and then move on. If you want more detail, read a full review! And if we have to have a rating system for all that other dumb, inconsequential stuff on the internet, maybe include a “meh” horizontal thumb, to indicate no preference or feeling whatsoever. Tech companies seem to underestimate how often their users are simply indifferent on a day-to-day basis.
Kate Knibbs: I like Metacritic’s ranking system, which is on a scale of 0 through 100. All rankings should be on a scale of 0 to 100. The five-star system doesn’t allow enough room for nuance.
AllMusic Album Ratings
Ben Lindbergh: AllMusic’s five-star editorial rating system lacks the crowdsourced quasi-objectivity and perceived precision of aggregators such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic: Each rating reflects only one person’s opinion, although the site, which dates back more than 25 years, also displays average user ratings for a supplementary perspective. But thanks to its comprehensive catalog — which aims to index everything and appears to come close — AllMusic fills a niche that the other sites don’t. If you hear or read about an artist who predates the era of aggregators, AllMusic’s ratings (and accompanying reviews) are the easiest way to ingest their career arc in the space of one screen.
AllMusic’s album ratings, which are revised periodically, operate “within the scope of an artist’s own work,” which means that they don’t lend themselves to interartist comparisons. But no one needs a rating system to settle subjective debates about the best albums ever; what we want is a guide to each artist’s best work, which AllMusic supplies. You won’t agree with the album or track picks for every entertainer, which are intended to highlight the “most representative” examples of each. But the selections are usually close enough to the consensus that you can use AllMusic to plan a superficial survey or a discography deep dive for almost any unfamiliar act. If you’re using an ad blocker, AllMusic won’t let you proceed past its homepage, but this is a website worth whitelisting.
Molly McHugh: I do not use Yelp, but I am on the ins with a group of Yelp Elites, who are people who’ve become so obsessed with the ratings platform that they are invited to special dinners and events. These events come with free booze, hats, sunglasses, and bottle openers you can take home. (Swag.) There is always food and it is either cheap or free. Occasionally there is a (free!) photo booth. (!) Sometimes, oftentimes, Yelp Elites can bring normals — people like me, who are too lazy to write 20 words about my breakfast bagel from the nameless food cart on the corner — to these events. Don’t believe me? Well I have 13 pairs of red Yelp sunglasses and seven red Yelp shot glasses to prove it! I happily profit from others’ semideranged need to categorize and rate the locations that make up a life. And also, Yelp reviews of the Starbuckses and Pizza Huts inside Targets reassure me that there truly are no limits to pettiness.
Paolo Uggetti: As someone who cites and uses sports statistics often, what I am about to say may sound blasphemous. Why is there always a need to quantify everything? Or simplify it down to a single gesture or click? Why must an internet opinion be constrained by the parameters of only five stars or 100 percent? Sometimes simple words are the best course of action. When I use Yelp, the star ratings catch my attention, but I’m only convinced on the place when I read the — believe it or not — words that do a much better job of construing what the locale is actually like. Is this practical? Probably not. Appealing? Doesn’t seem like it. But effective? You bet.
Call me a logophile, but I miss the good old days of people using adjectives and active verbs to describe the fettuccine Alfredo they ate or the romantic comedy they watched. I don’t care that I’m letting down my millennial generation with this take. For me, words are and will always be the best rating system.