(un)Critical Mass(es)

Let’s have a little discussion about human nature.

First, take a look at this story from yesterday’s WSJ, which reveals the rating inflation that plagues (or blesses, depending onyour point of view) the Web:

The Web can be a mean-spirited place. But when it comes to online reviews, the Internet is a village where the books are strong, YouTube clips are good-looking and the dog food is above average.

One of the Web’s little secrets is that when consumers write online reviews, they tend to leave positive ratings: The average grade for things online is about 4.3 stars out of five…

Did that surprise you? It did me, a bit. But then I got to thinking about the one place where I’ve done a lot of rating — Netflix, where over the years (in a vain attempt to teach the site to predict my preferences) I’ve rated more than 2,000 movies. And since I love movies, and do a certain amount of selection before watching them, I knew I had given really high ratings more often than really low ones — specifically, I had awarded 5 stars (to such films as “Casablanca,” “The Godfather” and “It’s a Wonderful Life”) 156 times, and 1 star (examples: “Dances With Wolves,” the made-in-Columbia “Death Sentence” and “Dune”) only 24 times.

Still, if you count up all the movies I’ve rated between 1 and 5, you come up with an average rating of only 3.4. And if you factor in the 815 flicks I’ve rated as “Not Interested,” awarding them a 0 score, it drops to 2.0. But that’s misleading, because some of those are good flicks that some time or other I gave that rating just as a way of saying I wasn’t interested in seeing them at that time. But if you count just a fourth of those, it lowers my average to 2.9.

Which is about where you’d expect me to be. I’m a born critic — flaws leap out at me, and I remember them. And my detractors (such as those who think I’m too tough on Mark Sanford) see me as all criticism, as one who never gives my subjects their due. Actually, though, some of my detractors (such as those who were furious that I continued to admire John McCain throughout the 2008 campaign) attack me for the opposite trait — the fact that I can the good outweighing the bad in some people and some things. (You ladies who love Jane Austen may think of me as a health mix of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, only without their wealth.)

Back to human nature: Why would folks be so overwhelmingly positive on the Web (except, of course, here on this blog)? The story in the Journal speculated as follows:

Culture may play a role in the positivism: Ratings in the U.K. average an even higher 4.4, reports Bazaarvoice. But the largest contributor may be human nature. Marketing research firm Keller Fay Group surveys 100 consumers each week to ask them about what products they mentioned to friends in conversation. “There is an urban myth that people are far more likely to express negatives than positives,” says Ed Keller, the company’s chief executive. But on average, he finds that 65% of the word-of-mouth reviews are positive and only 8% are negative.

“It’s like gambling. Most people remember the times they win and don’t realize that in aggregate they’ve lost money,” says Andy Chen, the chief executive of Power Reviews Inc., a reviews software maker that runs Buzzillions…

Aha! I think I understand… at least, I now understand a possible reason why people gamble.

I don’t know about you, but I have not gambled since I was in college. I went through a period when I shot pool (nine ball being my game) and played a few hands of poker. But the last time I played pool for money and the last time I gambled with cards are etched unforgettably on my mind because of the spectacular ways in which I lost. My opponent at the pool table had had a shocking run in which he had pocketed the nine ball on the break several times in a row. After hours in which no one had had a hand nearly as good, I risked all (even writing a check to another player to get cash to stay in the game) on a full house — only to lose to a full house that was one card better (queens as opposed to jacks).

I’ve never understood, since then, why people would gamble. But this tendency to remember the anomalous wins more clearly than the losses would explain it.

But is that truly human nature?

Frankly, I find myself doubting the very premise of the story. As a newspaperman of 35 years experience, I am so accustomed to hearing from the people who are AGAINST something, or who didn’t like something in the paper, that such universal satisfaction seems unlikely to me. Take letters to the editor. One of my favorite examples were the letters we got for a week or so after U.S. troops first went into Afghanistan in the fall of 2001: They were overwhelmingly against U.S. military action. I knew they were not representative of South Carolina, not by a long shot, but they were the people who were taking the trouble to write. And that seems to me to be the norm.

Yet this story is saying otherwise. What do you think is true, and why do you think it’s the case?

4 thoughts on “(un)Critical Mass(es)

  1. Karen McLeod

    I suspect that the difference stems from the different mindsets consumerism and politics engender. Most people respond to a political situation because they don’t approve it (“all the news that gives you fits”). When they approve of it, they usually are content. On the other hand, reviews of consumer products are usually based on personal preferences, and often with the intent of recommending it to a friend. I imagine that the movies you pick out to rate tend to be mostly those you like; while you rate those you really didn’t like, I suspect that you ignore those that were just so-so. In addition, you probably go to see movies that you think you will like, and don’t even see those whose previews lead you to believe that you won’t like them. If I get a product/service that I really like, I’ll recommend it to a friend if I think she/he would like it too. If I don’t like a product/service I make a mental note not to buy it again, but I don’t bother to bad mouth it unless the product/service is truly atrocious. For example, if you are a friend who is car shopping, I may recommend dealers whom I’ve found particularly helpful/honest in the past, but there’s only one I’d tell you to steer clear of. And, of course, I’d have no opinion about those dealers who sell cars that I’m not/have never been interested in. Basically, I think your comparing apples to orangutans here.

  2. kbfenner

    Exactly, Karen. A real independent critic gets ALL the movies to review. We amateurs choose what we want to see. I review books for Amazon, and they ask me to choose the ones I want them to send me, which would tend to skew the results favorably, although I *have* given two star reviews–South of Broad I think only got two or maybe three stars from me.
    I guess it does balance out the few times when I have felt compelled to pan something–a product I ordered that really didn’t turn out. Even then, I try to temper my scorn by judging whether it was merely a failure to my expectations or a truly bad conception overall. A pair of shoes that is too small or large is going to lose some stars–my feet are quite typical-sized in all regards but one, but a pair of shoes that is poorly made or fits very strangely will lose far more stars.

  3. Burl Burlingame

    I review movies for a newspaper, which I see a lot of films that, as a civilian, I wouldn’t cross the street to see. Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised. Most often not. Sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and sit through “Transformers.” I rate most movies as average, which, frankly most things are in life.
    I rate the post above as a 2.5.

  4. Lee Muller

    Burl, can you tell us when Obama stopped being a follower of Islam?

    Can you tell me when he rejected the communist teachings of his parents, and the socialist party platform on which he ran for office twice in the 1990s?

    Do you have any sources, besides the usual “anonymous” ones?

    “The Obama Deception” is a film you need to see, to jump start your education.


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