April 16, 2013

NG: Sharing is Not Always Caring

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Last month, Amazon acquired Goodreads, a website dedicated to sharing book ratings with friends and giving English majors a purpose in life. The website itself is relatively basic, but being the only social network centered around books has made it the primary place for hungry readers to find good recommendations. After a couple of high-profile scandals, including authors manipulating ratings on their Amazon product pages, Amazon really needs Goodreads to rebuild customer trust.

This raises the question: Why do we rely so heavily on ratings about anything and everything?

In the music world, ratings are universal and quasi-necessary to the listening experience. The closest thing to Goodreads for music is RateYourMusic, which allows people to rate every album in existence (even the obscure ones) out of five stars. You can also rate songs or albums as you’re listening with Pandora’s thumbs up and down or Last.fm’s hearts. The star-shaped outlines of iTunes and Spotify beckon you to fill them in with solid, hard-edged stars that exude an aura of permanence. And let’s not forget the countless rating schemes that “official” music reviewers use — from Rolling Stone’s four-star system, to Pitchfork’s insane decimal system and “Best New Music” designations.

Ratings are even more ingrained in film culture, and have been prevalent even longer than music reviews have. As a result, reviews for film are much more institutional than other media forms. You might write a great review for a movie, but it’s not going to get much attention unless you’re within a circle of professional critics. This allows for an extreme divergence between aggregate scores and critics ratings who are so well-known that they exist above the fold and can peacefully co-exist with the opinionated hopefuls in the general public. Some websites like Rotten Tomatoes aggregate reviews from critics, while others like IMDB aggregate ratings from thousands of users at once. Regardless of how they compile the ratings to create recommendations, the opinions of Joe Movie hold as much weight as the eloquent words of Roger Ebert or A.O. Scott.

TV shows have also succumbed to the ratings obsession, but as a relatively new field of scrutiny, these ratings are very messy. Not only do publications use multiple rating schemes (the letter grade seems to be the most popular at the moment), they seem to disagree on what should be rated. Should each episode, season or entire show be rated? Can we rate reality TV shows?  What about live acts? The levels of nuance have made TV ratings all the more confusing; not that that has stopped The Onion’s AV Club from rating the same Game of Thrones episode twice (for “experts” and “newbies”) or Television Without Pity from rating American Idol.

Admittedly, ratings are necessary in order to navigate the overwhelming amount of information that exists nowadays. You like some things and not others, so it makes sense to look to a source with similar tastes to tell you what is good and bad. But, on the other hand, the maxim “everybody’s a critic,” has been taken to ridiculous levels. Consider some of the one-star reviews of Homer’s The Odyssey: “There was way too much going on, too many characters and the plot story doesn’t seem to make any sense.” Here’s another: “Incredibly boring.” My favorite: “It read like a bad game of Dungeons and Dragons.”

So these people were admittedly high school students who didn’t pay attention in English class, but nevertheless, their opinions are factored into the overall rating that most people look at (currently at 3.64 stars). The Odyssey is nevertheless a classic, and it will be assigned to resentful high school students regardless; but think about all the other books that don’t enjoy classical status. Do we want similar reviewers influencing ratings and telling us what’s good?

According to the Goodreads community, the current “Best Book Ever” is Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, followed by Twilight — a distant second — and then a bunch of Harry Potter books. To Kill a Mockingbird comes in seventh. Are the first six greatest books ever, as voted by the Goodreads community, timeless classics? I tested it for myself, starting with the “Best Book Ever.”

As I read, I had great difficulty suppressing my inner snob. Why is the prose so awkward and dry? Is it just me, or are the characters more hollowed-out than a termite-infested tree? While we’re on diseased-tree metaphors, the plot holes are bigger than those in an Asian longhorned beetle-infested tree.

I decided that Goodreads wasn’t for me. My next “Great Read” will be something that I accidentally find on a library shelf and decide to read for myself, rather choosing thanks to the recommendations of others.

Original Author: Kai Sam Ng