Thursday, May 5, 2011

Ratings suck (or something like that)

I first started writing terrible Amazon reviews in 3rd grade, way back in 1999. Those were the days when all Amazon users would still just file away their opinions as "Customer reviews" and little distinction was made between children and adults. I grew on this system, learning to crudely translate my complex (well... to be honest, at first they were hardly complex. More like... childish...) opinions into 1-5 star ratings.

But it was only ever a crude figure. As the years went by, it became harder and harder to rate appropriately. Then sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing came around. These sites also built themselves on the 5-star rating (though LT also gave half stars, making it a 10-star rating, I guess...), each one providing a different scale than Amazon's.

This isn't the time for a rating inflation rant, but it is the time to slap these 5-star ratings away. I don't mean this as a dramatic statement against ratings, but the fact is that in today's online climate, there is no clear scale for a 5-star system. None. Every site offers its own recommendation for what each star rating could mean, leaving little room for complexities. LT's 10-star system is revolutionary in comparison. It allows for depth.

When I think of books, I don't think in numbers. I don't think in stars. I think in characters, in writing, in originality... I think about whether the book was enjoyable or tasking, whether it was rewarding or pointless, whether it entertained or educated. Two books can both get the same official 4-star rating when my reactions to them were completely different. My expectations from them are miles apart. How can any numerical system fully encompass this?

Again, I don't believe that there's something wrong with star ratings. When reading a review, it's convenient and easy to have a simple number summarize the reviewer's thoughts. That's not really a good thing, though. It is - for good and for bad - a simplification of the review. A numerical representation of complex emotions and thoughts. I like using star ratings, I like using sites that allow me to summarize my thoughts like that. What I don't like is the imbalances. I don't like 5-stars, I like 10. I don't like one site telling me that 3-stars is good while the other tells me that it's okay. I don't like the descriptions jumping from good straight to excellent. How does that make sense?

So let us raise our voices high! Let the 5-star system be forsaken, let us welcome a new age of complex reviews, a new age of a wide range of opinions and of organized, accepted descriptions for star ratings. Who's with me?


  1. I wish we could have a standard system across the world too. It is confusing when some people rate 3 stars as good and some OK. I agree that stars are often quite meaningless, but I do like the way they give an instant idea of how much a person liked a book. I guess we just have to read the reviews carefully to discover what the person actually meant by the rating they've given.

  2. I don't like ratings and stars either. I do use them sometimes, but often I'll feel that a certain number of stars doesn't do my reaction justice, so I just skip it. A review giving reasons for liking or not liking is SO much better.

  3. I am in complete agreement with you. I love LT's rating system. I love the partial stars. AND I especially love not having to use them.

    Nothing is more ridiculous to me than Amazon's insistence that an original history work -- like Gregory of Tours 'History of the Franks' -- be rated. I mean do they want a scathing report on his use of Latin, his understanding of the Goths? (Perhaps I should just write 'this ROX!!!! and leave it at that;)

    Great post. I'm off to tweet about it.

  4. First off, I tend to think all the book bloggers I read are considerably older than me, so it was funny when I read you were in 3rd grade in '99, because, whoa! I was actually in 5th grade then, making me a bit older ;)

    In response to your thoughts on 5-star rating systems, I totally agree that it's far too simplistic. I think numerical ratings are a good idea in theory because they are so simple, but the meanings of stars or half-stars need to be more specific and eventually standard across book review sites. In the meantime, I'm sticking with qulaitative observations on my blog.

  5. I'm with you! Most ratings systems are pretty simplistic- a very nuanced system would be hard to handle, too, I think. What can you do?


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