Since Netflix announced it’s switching from five star to thumbs up/thumbs down ratings, there’s been a flurry of internet news and culture site articles reporting the change in the oddest of ways. These articles (google and read any three) explain the change, Netflix’s reasoning (increasing user ratings, which somehow translates to better ratings for its own programming, and better personal recommendations)…then, somewhere, shoehorn in the recent trolling of Amy Schumer’s The Leather Special. It’s just dropped there like a mic, or briefly discussed as a “problem” with the current ratings system, though the connection is never explained.
In addition to giving reddit trolls the notoriety they thrive on–Schumer’s response on social media has derided not the trolls but those reporting it like it’s news–the illusion that they have real power (other than the power to annoy and make streaming and other pop culture sites feel like just another space hostile to women), none of these articles actually name the real problem, which is misogyny.
Acknowledging that I understand little when it comes to website algorithms, my first question about the new system is: How would a thumbs up/down system change trolling? Won’t it be just as easy to thumb down a title you want to trash? How will the “compatibility” factor affect a rating?
Additionally, I wonder what will happen with all the star ratings users have given over the years, including mine. Will they be “translated” into a thumbs up or down? What average star rating would constitute a thumbs up or down?
I took part in the survey Netflix used to assess the star rating system and possible alternatives. I can’t clearly recall all the questions or my responses, but even before the survey, I’d been thinking about ratings across various sites. I was excited when I read Netflix was overhauling its system and hoped for the best. I’ll give the new system a shot (I don’t have a choice, much like with the annoying music now playing when I highlight a title on my Xbox app or my inability to add a title to my streaming queue from the DVD site as I previously could), but what I really want is the option to turn off or hide ratings altogether, whether stars or thumbs up/down.
Netflix isn’t the only site where trolls target specific titles with a campaign of negative ratings. The Leather Special has been voted down on IMDb and Letterboxd as well, and Schumer’s book was targeted on Amazon. Women-driven films like 2016’s Ghostbusters were given low ratings before being released, and I noticed the same with the James Baldwin doc I Am Not Your Negro. Sometimes ratings “recover” after those who’ve actually seen/read and enjoyed the title contribute, but not fully (I Am Not Your Negro‘s rating is a 7/10 on IMDb, which is likely lower than it otherwise would be). I stopped using IMDb other than for show times precisely because I could no longer put up with that kind of bullshit. Though the site states some votes count more than others to avoid exactly this kind of problem, and they recently did away with the viper’s nests that were the discussion boards, it remains too hostile an environment for me to frequent.
Beyond trolling, I also wonder how useful ratings of any kind truly are to me as a viewer/reader. My reading and watching tastes are eclectic. I’m not denying that some suggestions are accurate, that the data gathered from my use of sites is useful–to the sites themselves. Having recently read Dexter Palmer’s novel Version Control, data as identity is on my mind. But if it’s profitable to corporations, I want to at least benefit from it myself.
What ratings do is (negatively) affect what I choose to watch and, sometimes, read. A title looks interesting or was recommended, but, oh, it’s only got a two-star rating. Pass. Or, a title’s got five stars, so it should be awesome, but, eh, it didn’t meet expectations. Ratings (and the proliferation of online opinions) also turn me into a little critic; as I watch/read, I’m already writing a review in my mind or imagining what rating I’ll give it instead of, you know, engaging with the story. I can take responsibility for these habits, but helping to control them requires a degree of personalization most sites don’t offer.
When I look at reviews on Netflix, negative ones in particular, it becomes clear how stupid and unhelpful people’s gripes with films and shows can be. If the reviews are an indication of the reasoning behind low ratings then I’d rather not bother at all.
For consumers, ratings are supposed to help them find content they’re likely to enjoy and avoid what they’re less likely to enjoy. Viewers and readers have long used critics’ reviews and friends’ recommendations for these purposes and still do. Online ratings are like “word of mouth” on a large scale, except virtually none of these people are your friends, and, depending on the film/show/book, very few write like legit critics.
In the past, when I subscribed to Entertainment Weekly, I would sometimes abstain from reading a review of a film I was eager to see because a negative review would make me seek flaws. Sometimes I also just didn’t want my buzz harshed. Browsing films and books online, I can’t avoid seeing what a pile of crap others have found something to be, or, sometimes worse, how mediocre. When those ratings may not even reflect a film/show/book’s actual viewership/readership, why should I have to see them?
At the end of the day, my desire for a no-ratings option isn’t about rating accuracy or finding new content. It’s about agency and control over my own viewing/reading experience.