The Dark Side of the Rating System

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You are on your way to a job interview in your Uber. You were paired with a quality driver because you hold a 4.7 rating. At the interview, the employer pulls out their computer to check your employee score which is an impressive 4.6 out of 5. You get the job. To celebrate, you decide to go to a nice restaurant, so you pull up Yelp to check for the best spots in your area. That Italian restaurant rated 4.8 out of 5 stars sounds promising.

As demonstrated in the situation above, rating systems have become integral to how we make decisions today. As part of this new digital era, the sharing economy requires trust to function, and that trust is based on user ratings. These ratings are the key to keep the likes of Uber, Airbnb, and eBay an attractive option for users.

Rating systems make people accountable for their actions both good and bad, rewarding those who behave well and punishing the wrongdoers. But as more companies begin to adapt the rating model, we enter an age of hyper-accountability. Sharing-economy participants will have every transaction contribute to a reputation that will follow them, potentially for the rest of their lives. The question then becomes, how do we feel about this new environment of hyper-accountability?

Everyone is beginning to be more accountable for everything they do and say, attaching ratings to actions and purchases. In the case of Uber, passengers act as unpaid supervisors, managing Uber’s workforce by monitoring driver behaviour. If you were a driver and your rating fell below 4.6, you can be deactivated from the service. This means that being rated a 4 out of 5 stars is essentially a fail, putting serious economic power in the hands of the user.

The contrary argument is that ratings help improve the behaviour of the parties being rated. In the case of Uber, you are likely to be a courteous passenger if you know getting a bad score might result in you being banned from using the service in the future. I completely agree with this argument and am a supporter of rating systems because of it, but it is necessary to be aware of the other side of this accountability system.

Currently we lack standardized reputation systems, meaning that you must rebuild your online reputation for every new service you sign up for. It would be beneficial if my ratings on Uber and Airbnb were transferred to ratings on emerging systems, so users can not only determine if I am a well behaved contributor on one platform but through the system as a whole. Allowing for more data points will help elevate these one-off situations that damage your reputation. On the flip side, this can also mean that negative actions in one platform will follow you across all platforms, making you even more accountable for your actions.

Recently, I made a booking on Airbnb. Since one of the three ratings I have received was 4 out of 5 stars, or a fail in the eyes of Uber, the host was hesitant to allow me to rent. The renter’s perspective is completely understandable, as they are lending out their property to a complete stranger. But as someone who is a positive contributor to the sharing economy, it is scary to think that one minuscule negative action in the past can tarnish my reputation as a user.

Rating systems are forging new power structures, and one cannot forget that there is an insidious side to those stars.