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Ethics

Zero Stars

The ubiquitous star ratings that accompany listings of hotels, books, films, restaurants, apps and blogs reveal the human propensity constantly to evaluate the world, and to share our opinions with others.

Anyone can rate a product by scoring it from 1 to 5, though of course not everyone does, and there are unaccounted biases. Though random and malicious ratings are usually filtered out, the rating process is open to manipulation, including by friends and supporters of the product under scrutiny, as well as its rivals.

Row of toilets with graded signs from basic to delux ***

Proprietor-defined star rating at toilets, Chott el Jerid, Tunisia

Star ratings usually exist in consort with supporting text, ie reviews. As every iPhone user knows, app star ratings and their reviews might be out of date, applying to a state of the product prior to its latest (improved) release. In a different sphere, thanks to customer reviews, many B&B owners have to suffer the indeterminately enduring consequences of a missing bathplug or soiled carpet. See Trip Advisor.

Star ratings were first popularised in the Michelin tourist guides in the 1930s, in which company appointed experts decided ratings according to criteria. Now of course anyone can proffer their assessment. Unlike early restaurant and theatre guides, online star ratings are regularly summated and averaged, in the manner of a vote. We are more likely to trust an average than the single opinion of a random and unaccountable source. Products get compared and listed according to such ratings.

Some aggregator sites such as www.rottentomatoes.com present ratings from multiple sources, expert and amateur, leaving it to the reader to assess ratings and accompanying reviews. Tactics emerge for evaluating the status and track record of reviewers. For example, you can check the performance of Amazon reviewers across a range of reviews and thereby test their biases.

The field of star ratings is subject to the vicissitudes of a nested cycle of interpretations. Not only do thoughtful consumers evaluate products, but they also evaluate those who do the evaluating.

Online star ratings also produce some interesting side effects. Not least is the dominant category of “zero stars.” West End Whingers have a website dedicated to the lowest rated London theatre productions. But there are also those hotels, books, films, restaurants, apps and blogs that have no ratings at all, even though such evaluations are invited. Not all things of value are assessed by opinion polls. Some objects, events, services and systems pass unnoticed. Some are circulated within communities that are more circumspect about summarising their opinions as a single figure score. There’s a certain fixity to star ratings that denies the dynamism of more sophisticated modes of judgement and interpretation.

References

  • Furlough, Ellen. 2003. Review of Marketing Michelin: Advertising and Cultural Identity in Twentieth-Century France by Stephen L Harp. Journal of Social History, (37) 1, 274-277.
  • Lovink, Geert. 2003. Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture. London: Routledge.

 

About Richard Coyne

The cultural, social and spatial implications of computers and pervasive digital media spark my interest ... enjoy architecture, writing, designing, philosophy, coding and media mashups.

Discussion

7 thoughts on “Zero Stars

  1. well, I am wondering can this kind of statistics be used in a research,for example the rating and comments from customers online. the sampling is big enough and it is anonymous.

    by the way, i think most of the calculation they do they use the average, if they could include the mean, median and mode, using the normal distribution, which will be more accurate and reasonable.

    Posted by yujia dong | December 2, 2011, 4:56 pm
  2. This is interesting. I was just thinking about how dependent I have been on using an iPhone app to give me reviews of restaurants, cafes, etc., around Edinburgh. This is a contrast to at home in a small city where I would rarely depend on a star-rating. That said, I try to be skeptical of the star-rating sort of websites like yelp because the majority of people that post reviews either had a horrible or beyond expectations experience…but where is the middle ground? Another issue that comes to mind is who is really writing the reviews? I have heard instances of companies putting excellent reviews of themselves to attract more customers. I will admit, it’s difficult not to search for reviews before going to a new restaurant, but what about the restaurants that don’t have reviews?

    Posted by jessica Ruiz | December 4, 2011, 12:26 pm
  3. I am torn between a “customer position” and an “employee in the hospitality sector-position”. I do appreciate the possibility to check reviews before I spend a lot of money in a restaurant, only to discover that the food is bland and the staff less than enthusiastic. On the other hand I have the feeling that reviews have to some extent replaced the ordinary comment card. Instead of filling out the comment card (which is not visible to the entire world) or talking directly to the manager, people nowadays seem to make a sport out of writing particularly destroying review about “the lack of customer service”, “sub-standard food” or “dirty staff uniforms”. Depending on the review obsession of tou manager, as an employee you might be in a position where you have to discuss the details of complaints from events that might be weeks ago. I think that a lot of bad reviews are based on particular situations and do not necessarily reflect on the quality of the cafe, restaurant, bar… But of course it’s easier to write a lengthy rant on the internet instead of asking for a refund in person.

    Posted by NathalieWeidhase | December 5, 2011, 10:28 am
  4. Personally I do not care much about the star rating on places I already know and like to come, but must admit that if I am going somewhere new I might look it up on the internet to see how it is rated. I do not give that much for ratings that comes without any comments to why it got a good or a bad rating though.
    On the other hand where I am from the Veterinary and Food Administration has now also introduced ‘smilys’ to rate how good an hygiene restaurants and cafes have, and them I definitely look at, even though I assume they might not create a totally accurate picture either. These ‘smilys’ can really hit a restaurant hard if it ends up with an angry ‘smily’, but still I believe they are to the benefit of the consumers and I do appreciate that the authorities actually keep an eye on businesses.
    More over I am not a big fan of the Michelin stars that can cause so much fuzz that a restaurants suddenly are allowed to raise its prices to the double and make it absolutely impossible for normal people to ever dream about eating there, just because they received an extra star.
    Also stars in the rating system of hotels can be doubtful, since they are depending on a fixed set of rules for what gives a star and what does not. The step from two to three stars for instance depends for example on if the rooms have TVs and air condition or not. The step from three to four depends among other factors on if the hotel has marble floors and 24 hour open reception. It does not depend on if the service is good, or if the TV and the air condition in the room actually works all the time.
    Having worked at different hotels before starting university I know how large the difference can be between hotels in the same category, where some hotel owners just do anything to meet the criteria to get an extra star, while others actually care about if their guest are enjoying their stay and would like to come back or not.
    With this in mind it might actually be argued that the ability to rate things like hotels online, via the hotels own webpage but also through a large amount of other pages on the internet, serves a good purpose. This way it makes it possible to share experiences and find out how if other people think a hotel is worth a visit before booking a room.
    I think that the rating systems might both have its pros and cons and should definitely always be viewed with critical eyes. Still I think it might benefit us as consumers and help us to control that at lease restaurants and hotels are not just jumping the fence where it is lowest.

    Posted by Skaermtrolden | December 14, 2011, 5:59 pm
  5. In the begging of these semester, my programme (Film in the Public Space) held a workshop named ” Test”. It ask us to bring two films, one is own favorite film with bad criticism, and the other one is a high rating film which I don’t like. I think we all have this kind of experiences, become a fun of something others don’t like, or dismissed on something others all admired. In my opinion, though there is variety of defects on different ranting system and even ranting itself, the mean reason led to the side effects of ranting still is the”own test”. Because everyone is different.
    As for me, I still use the ranting as one reference on looking for the product, especially on hotel and restaurants searching in an unknown city. But I will not just look at the “stars”, the number of ranting people is also important. In my opinion, the enough number ensuring the accuracy of statistics data.

    Posted by Wang Jingyi | November 28, 2012, 7:50 pm
  6. This blog entry brings to mind my experience with the user-generated review website yelp.com. I often frequent the site to gather information about bars/restaurants or local specialists (pharmacies, dentists, etc.) before visiting an establishment. I also have contributed to the website with my own reviews of restaurants and business in the Chicago-area. While I cannot argue for the rest of the population who utilises yelp as a resource, I always gather information from it with caution. You cannot always interpret an establishment rated at 2/5 stars as being of poor quality – the textual content of a review, its review date, and number of ratings all play into how I perceive an establishment’s potential to satisfy my needs.

    More so, the only way to establish credibility as a reviewer in communities such as yelp is to have others agree with your opinion. A review of 1/5 stars by a more credible reviewer is weighed the same as a review of 5/5 by any other plebeian. Herein lies the limitation of any star-rating system, it is purely subjective and has no bearing on truth. We have only kept such systems because it provides reviewers with the feeling of importance/purpose and cheap marketing/publicity for products and services.

    I have been asked on more than one occasion by businesses to “pump reviews” in order to improve respective ratings. Refusal was my only option in these cases as there was an undoubtable moral issue at hand. I feel that this is not an uncommon practice as all one needs is multiple email addresses to create multiple phony accounts. Even though yelp is moderated, the turnaround for eliminating bogus reviews may be too long.

    What happens when a reviewing platform is challenged? Yelp has been under constant scrutiny for mysteriously deleting reviews and an extortion lawsuit was filed in 2010 [http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2010/02/yelp-sued-for-alleged-extortion/], unfortunately dismissed in 2011. Even the Michelin-star system is governed by a bigger body that consumers must put their trust into for being fair and honest. This implied trust in the system is what keeps these reviewing systems alive.

    Posted by A. Paguirigan | December 3, 2012, 4:33 pm
  7. Since online star ratings are usually averaged, one effective way to reduce the effect of outliers is increasing sample size. In my opinion, websites should focus on attracting customers to rate products online. For example, hotel ratings websites can cooperate with hotels. If customers rate hotels and write reviews according to their experience, they can get vouchers of the hotel they rate.

    Posted by S. ZHANG | December 17, 2012, 8:02 am

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