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You are what you rate

21 May 201807:30PMintrospectionrants

We live in a hellish dystopia where we rate everything and everyone around us.

Well, not quite yet. But maybe we're getting there.

The technology we use shapes the way we interact with the world. In a world where everything you do is trackable and rateable, the things you choose to keep track of has an outsize influence on the way you see things.

Here's what I track, and why.


I've been keeping track of the beers I drink since December 2016, when Grace and I went down south with her family. There's a bunch of breweries down that way, and I was still fairly new to drinking beer. While we were down there Grace's brother Michael got me into Untappd, and it completely changed the way I drink.

Untappd is ostensibly a social network, but I don't really use its social features at all. The point of Untappd, for me, is self-discovery.

You see, there are a lot of different kinds of beer, and a lot of names for those kinds of beer. Beer is consumed in social situations, where you need to choose what you want quickly and without a lot of prep. And beer is a thing where if you get the wrong one, it'll completely ruin your experience. If you're part of a social circle which does drink beer, in other words, it's very useful to know what kinds of beers you like.

When I got on Untappd I was learning this the hard way. Keeping track of which varieties and which flavours I liked (and, possibly more importantly, didn't like) is hard. There's so much terminology flying around. Untappd let me aggregate all of that data to look at later, and focus on whether or not I liked the drink, rather than whether or not I'd read the label correctly.

And at the end of that process, I'd give it a rating. Three stars is the threshold for "I'd drink this if you put it in front of me". Four stars is the threshold for "I would actively seek this out again." And I've yet to give out a five, although Four Pines' Honey Green Almond Ale came pretty damn close.

So it's thanks to Untappd that after almost a year I can say pretty confidently what kinds of beer I like. I prefer dark beers to pale beers, malty beers to hoppy beers, and pretty much any other beer to pretty much any IPA. Yes, that means sometimes I gave highly-rated award-winning beers three stars and a "meh just another ipa". Don't @ me.


Books are another matter entirely. I already know what kinds of books I like. The problem was remembering which ones I'd read.

I like to know where the stuff buzzing around my head comes from. There have been so many times that I could remember a quote, or a passage, or a character, or a scene, but not which book it's from. Maybe it's relevant to something I'm writing, maybe I enjoyed it and want to read it again, or maybe I just want to know where it came from so I can safely forget it again. I can't do any of those things if I can't remember the book.

Whatever the reason behind it, remembering the idea but not the source is just about the most frustrating thing in the world.

Now, tracking the books I read doesn't help with that directly, but it does at least tell me where to look. The risk is less of thinking I did read a book I didn't, and more of forgetting I've read one which I have.

So that's why I track them. It doesn't explain why I rate them.

I can tell you just by looking at the title whether or not I enjoyed a book. Maybe if I read hundreds of very similar books a year I'd need to rate them to remember what I thought

Rating is more much about sharing what I thought. And in so doing, making passive recommendations as well - along the vein of "I enjoyed this, and you know how our tastes intersect, so perhaps you might enjoy it too". It's really subjective, but that's where its value is. The aggregated ratings on Goodreads are pretty useless, but one or two ratings from people whose tastes I know well - that's actually very valuable data.


Before visiting the frozen north, I bought myself a camera. Over the course of that trip I took about two thousand pictures. It was kind of a trial by fire, an exercise in learning on the run. And an essential part of learning is self-reflection, especially if you did a bunch of learning on the road without much downtime.

So I sat down when I got home and catalogued all my photos. Most of them got three stars. That, to me, meant they were competent - they were technically correct, but not particularly interesting. If they were competent and actually good they got four stars, and if they were outstanding - as in, they literally stood out, they got five stars. On the other hand, if there was just one or two things holding them back, they were flawed at two stars, and if they were horribly broken and clearly a mistake, they got one star.

Out of thousands of photos I got just a handful of outstanding ones, and just a few dozen really good ones. Sorting them let me find those, so I could show them off or bury them forever. But it also let me learn from my successes and my mistakes.

So what?

So: Discovering. Remembering. Sharing. Reflecting. Learning. These are all good reasons to rate things. And more importantly, they're all reasons I've chosen to rate things.

What these have in common is that they're not for the world at large, they're for me, and my friends.

This is the problem with something like Uber ratings. Cause under most of these systems - mine, at least, an Uber that gets you from point A to point B with no complications is a 3. A 4 might be friendly and you had a great conversation. A 5 would be if they went out of their way to help, carrying you on their shoulders the last hundred metres or something, I don't know.

Under Uber's system and expectations, 5 is the minimum. If you have less than a five-star rating, you very quickly fall off the platform. The effect this has isn't to bring everyone's standards up to outstanding, it's to lower the value of five stars from 'Outstanding' to 'Acceptable +- some guilt'. To get a four-star rating on Uber you have to do something wrong. To get three stars, you have to completely mess up. One and two stars, as I understand it, are reserved for creepy vibes and non-consensual physical contact respectively.

These ratings aren't useful for you. They're not useful for your friends. They're, arguably, not really that useful for the drivers. But they're very useful for Uber, because they keep the drivers in a state of constant, compliant fear.

Think about the things in your life that you rate. Think about why you do it. Think about where that data goes, and who benefits from it. Are you getting anything out of it? Or are you contributing to a data mill so abstracted from human experience that the only possible incentives it could generate are perverse?

Reflection is a powerful thing. Maybe it's time to reflect on how we apply it.

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