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Home >Opinion >Columns >The tyranny of public ratings in our hyper-democracy

I wonder what the average rating of all husbands in the world might be. Will it be the highest in Scandinavian nations? Will husbands who have a 4.5 star-rating become famous among women? Would men with low testosterone levels have higher ratings? Will five stars be called ‘an Obama’? Will the global average rating of wives be higher than the average rating of husbands?

This may never happen. My rating as a husband is of course known to me, sadly, but it will never be public knowledge. But the modern world is full of ratings. Toothpastes are rated; their delivery, too, is rated. This is the age of collective opinion, and its hyper-democracy. So, while the review of a spouse is still in the territory of the melancholy poem, many other evaluations are open to public view.

Most people today are at risk of being rated, and they live in the terror of ratings. Big and small hotels, restaurants, doctors, dentists, taxi drivers, even passengers, hosts, guests, tutors, gyms, pools, retailers. And, of course, in case it slipped your mind, films and books. Once, only a professional critic could rate stuff; now everyone rates everyone else. The presiding indignity of the world is people pleading with you—or pretending not to plead—for a high rating.

That is the new middleman. Between you and how you want to engage with this world exists a row of silly stars, a shape that looks nothing like what it is meant to represent, yet is filled with such arrogant swag.

We may not always realize it, and our public evaluation may not translate into stars, but all of us have ratings. Professionally, socially, romantically. And the last person to know your rating might be you.

The omens of our rated life are, naturally, easier to see in less abstract spaces where everything is measured—on Amazon or Tripadvisor, for instance. This is part of an ongoing democratization of opinion. Once you needed to have credentials of your own to transmit your evaluation; now you only need a motivation to rate.

Today, two kinds of ratings coexist. One is a relic from older times—professional critics pass their judgement on a product that may not always reflect popular opinion. This is plutocratic rating. Like the Metascore of the film database, IMDB, which is an average of what two dozen critics have thought of a film. It is usually at variance with the ratings of crowds, which is often a more accurate indicator of how much you may enjoy a film. I used to have a covert regard for the metascore and a low opinion of ratings done by the masses, but after discovering some gems that the crowds had rated highly and some dull dishonest films with social messages that the critics had celebrated, I have reformed myself. I must also seize this opportunity to correct an injustice done to two brilliant Sherlock Holmes films made by Guy Ritchie, which critics had rated poorly but the ovation of crowds goaded me to watch.

There is a way in which a professional critic talks about a film or a book, or even an electronic gadget, that has no connection or relevance to how you absorb or use those products. For instance, you do not watch a film or read a book to enjoy “the social dynamics of eviscerated patriarchs". Writers, too, don’t write to “examine the society in a gendered world". They are only trying to tell a story, and readers are only trying to enjoy one. You will never guess this by how critics talk. As a form of journalism or an intellectual activity, criticism can be very interesting. But as recommendation, it is not only comically bad, but can also dissuade people from buying the very product being praised.

As a novelist, I have been a recipient of both professional reviews and customer ratings. Some literary praise has done more to damage the sales of my books than poorly worded but far more interesting customer abuse.

But then democracy, which has a stellar reputation, is not always a great thing. In the best of times, it is a fair projection of the majority opinion. But that is when a large enough proportion of people have voted. Often, democracy in ratings only means that anyone who feels wronged is given an opportunity to rail against an establishment. This, in turn, pushes an otherwise honest entrepreneur to buy ratings through crooked ways.

The world has accepted public ratings as a form of free-market democracy, but it has not asked who exactly these raters really are. The question ‘what kind of person rates’ has a popular answer—everyone does. But then, most people have never rated. In my understanding as a writer, most readers have never rated books. Most people in the world love films and very few among them have rated one. I tried to rate a product on Amazon once, and that was only because I was angry. I was expecting a microscope (don’t ask), and got ‘opera glasses’ instead. But I gave up once I realized the effort a review would take. I used to rate Uber drivers, but only on their request. Wherever I go these days, people ask me to rate them. But it is too much work.

So, I wonder, who are these people who rate? Outside the world of book readers, who have a long culture of discussing what they have read, there exist habitual raters. They rate everything they experience—hotels, restaurants, toilet rolls. Their opinion is not sought very often and they feel a sense of importance when they rate and write reviews. That is the human strain that ratings don’t immediately reveal, but is exactly what has created the hyper-democracy of our times. It’s a form of megalomania. And every business lives in fear of it.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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