Magazine | October 1, 2018, Issue

Overrated, All the Time

September, usually a lovely and mild-mannered month, chose to roll in this year with a bout of terrifying news: In New Zealand and Australia, Uber passengers with less-than-stellar ratings will now be given an unceremonious kick to the curb.

“Uber will soon block passengers whose ratings drop below four stars,” blared the U.K. Independent, clearly sharing my sense of low-level panic. Repre­sentatives of the global ride-sharing company, attempting to assuage a nervous populace, argued that the vast majority of Uber riders have nothing to fear. “To get to a number as low as four there really needs to have been multiple instances of one-star ratings, and complaints from a number of different drivers,” Susan Anderson, the company’s general manager for Australia and New Zealand, told the Sydney Morning Herald.

And yet there’s this unsettling addendum, reported in Newsweek: “The company currently has no plans to inform users why they receive a negative rating.” Oh dear.

My Uber rating, you see, is 4.63. This is respectable enough, I suppose, but it also means that as a rider, I’ve gotten a few Gigli-style reviews. (Remember Gigli? The 2003 romantic comedy starring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez declared by many critics to be the worst movie of all time? The film that inspired one despondent reviewer to write that it had “an annihilating effect on your will to live”? No? That’s fine. It’s probably best that we all forget.)

In any case, here’s my point: With a 4.63 rating, I’ve clearly been panned by more than one Uber driver — and alarmingly, I have no idea why!   

I have never barfed in an Uber. I have never whipped out a giant loaf of fragrant fresh-baked garlic bread for a messy back-seat snack. I have never karate-chopped my driver. I have never intimidatingly toyed with a Crocodile Dundee–sized knife while keeping one squinty eye visible in the rearview mirror, B-grade-horror-movie style. I do not slam doors. I am not overly chatty. I don’t talk about politics in an Uber — well, okay, maybe I’ve done it once or twice — and I’m a political columnist, for heaven’s sake!

Sadly, the mystery of my occasional low ratings will remain locked tight in the secret underground vault at Uber headquarters, at least for now. In the meantime, because I strongly believe in accountability and introspection, I will continue to blame those rare low ratings on my husband and rowdier friends.

But let’s look at the bigger, more important picture, shall we? Our society’s ratings mania is getting out of control. Witness this headline from the Sydney Morning Herald, where columnist John Birmingham offers a troubling glimpse at our potential dystopian future: “My Uber Rating Shows I Am a Much Better Person Than You.” Birmingham was kidding — “look upon my arbitrarily determined near-perfect valuation, ye mighty,” he wrote, “and despair” — but was he right? Are we heading toward a Black Mirror future in which our immortal souls are ranked by stars?  

In case you’re not a fan, Black Mirror is a Twilight Zone–style Netflix show that highlights all of the terrible things that will happen in the future thanks to technology. If you have a wildly overactive imagination (check!) and occasional thoughts like “you know, those Luddites weren’t all bad!” (check!), you should probably pass on watching Black Mirror.

But there is at least one episode, titled “Nosedive,” that might be worthwhile for everyone to watch. It portrays a highly tracked future where every personal interaction is rated online. Poor ratings lead to lower socioeconomic status, social ostracization, and rude treatment at airports. It’s a societal pressure cooker! It’s a mental-health disaster! It’s enough to push one young woman, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, to the point where she threatens to behead Mr. Rags, her beloved childhood toy!

This sort of thing is already happening in China, eerily enough, where a comprehensive “social credit” system is rapidly expanding, with a goal of covering the entire populace by 2020. We’re not nearly to this level of nuttiness in America — yet — but why not kick-start the resistance now? It is time to fight back. We have too many ratings! It’s kind of stressing me out!  

Order groceries online? There’s a five-star rating for that. Order Thai food? Better rate it five stars! Did you get your car fixed? Don’t forget the five-star customer survey! This last one is a particularly touchy topic: Online ratings, or the lack thereof, can have real impact on certain people’s careers. But what if a customer is simply too busy or lazy to fill out a survey? One Uber driver launched his own personal revolt, explaining that even the most well-intentioned four-star rating translates into “This driver sucks, fire him slowly.” Yikes! Who knew?

My own personal ratings Waterloo came this summer, when I ordered a Turkish rug online. I paid money for the rug, as one tends to do in a commercial transaction in a capitalist society. The rug came in the mail; I unrolled it in my hall. It was a nice-looking rug, so I did not return it. Naïvely, I assumed this was the end of any headspace I would have to devote to this particular rug. Silly me!

A few days later, I found myself facing a rather peckish email from the online-rug-shop owner: Was everything okay? Why didn’t I leave an online rating? Was I not happy with the rug? Something must be wrong! EVERYONE MUST LEAVE A RATING!

You’ll be either pleased or enraged to learn that I did not leave a rating. Every great climb, my friends, starts with a single small step. Moving forward, here is my not-so-radical proposal to fight ratings madness: No review is a good review. If something is bad, I will let you know!

Don’t you feel liberated already? I sure do. Whew! This column is worth at least five stars.

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