How was it for you?

How we became obsessed with rating, ranking, reviewing and measuring.

As a Harvard undergraduate, Mark Zuckerberg could have been expelled when an early version of Facebook, which ranked girls on how hot they were, brought down the university’s server because of the high level of traffic. He was accused of breaching security, violating copyrights and violating individual privacy by creating the Facemash website. After a disciplinary board hearing the future billionaire was put on probation and required to see a counsellor.

We love ranking things. In his first novel, High Fidelity, Nick Hornby tapped into this obsession. The protagonist, Rob Fleming, was obsessed with making top-five lists: most memorable split-ups, in chronological order, Best Films of All Time and even Bands Or Musicians Who Should Be Shot If It Came to the Musical Revolution. But now thanks to the IT revolution we have all become like Rob Fleming. We rate, we rank, we review, we measure and we also track. We do it to ourselves, our friends, the companies we purchase products from and also the places where we eat, drink and sleep.

The growth of e-commerce in particular, has led to an explosion of rating. The online auction and shopping website, eBay was one of the pioneers of this way of ranking people. It was obviously important for the fledgling website to establish trust; you were buying from complete strangers, so you wanted to know if you were you going to ever see your money again or get your package delivered. And in the sharing economy of Airbnb and Uber trust is a vital component too. Indeed, the Uber rating system isn’t one-way. Customers also get rated. You’re more likely to be a courteous passenger if you know getting a bad score might result in you being cut off from the convenience of Uber in the future. These systems don’t always work well. The Uber driver who went on a random shooting spree that killed six people in Michigan last month had an Uber rating of 4.73. However, this phenomenon is not limited to the online world. Dr. Harold Shipman, who may well have been murdered more than 200 of his patients, was described as a wonderful GP by many of the families of his patients.

Research carried out by Consumer Business Research at Deloitte UK has shown that 81% of consumers read the customer reviews, on e-commerce and websites. This is not just a passive activity. 40% of consumers post reviews. I don’t tend to write reviews. Recently I bought an e-reader from the Spanish company Energy Sistem (sic). As well as coming without a built-in dictionary, it had serious battery issues. I just took it back to the shop. I didn’t write one of those scathing online reviews recommending that you never buy any of their awful products.

Companies have become vey needy in recent years. You go to IKEA and as you leave the store, they have this smiley-button based system:

ikea smiley

Buy online and you are asked to rate the experience.  A similar thing happens if you phone you telephone company. It’s all too much. As Anne Karpf pointed out in the Guardian: “If I have a transcendental experience with a bin liner, my supplier will be the first to know. But otherwise, forget it.”

One thing is writing reviews about products, but the rating is invading the personal sphere. Peeple is a mobile app allows you to rate people. The slogan for this app is “Character is destiny” and according to its website, the objective is to turn character into a new form of currency.  There are three criteria for evaluation: professional, personal and dating. After a storm of criticism about potential cyberbullying and harassment when the company announced the plans for the app in September 2015, the service became opt-in; people could only be rated if they had registered with the service. The five-star-rating system also went to be replaced by Positive, Neutral or Negative. You can write a negative review, but unless the person on the other end approves it, it won’t appear on their profile. The app was finally launched just over a month ago, and is available for download in the US and Canada.

China has a more sinister use of rating people. Sesame Credit trawls data from social networks and online purchase histories, to give people a score for how good a citizen they are. In reality this seems to mean how obediently citizens follow the party line. As the video above explains, “If you post pictures of Tiananmen Square or share a link about the recent stock market collapse, your Sesame Credit goes down. On the other hand, Share a link from the state-sponsored news agency about how well the economy is doing and your score goes up.” Users whose friends have low obedience scores could also lose points.

We need to put all this into some kind of context- less than sixty years ago China was in the grip of the Great Leap Forward, which was followed soon after by the Cultural Revolution. Nevertheless, there is something insidious about this attempt at promoting social obedience.


If you are interested in this subject, check out this ABC Radio National podcast, Future Tense, Rate, rank, review and measure.

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