Grading the Ratings Economy

Ratings Economy

By Nathaniel Nelson

Rating People

Every time you step into a restaurant, an Uber, or an Airbnb residence is an opportunity for heist. Your weapon is in your pocket, and it’s loaded if you have a signal.

The 2010s have seen a proliferation in mobile apps that allow marketplaces to function entirely over the internet. The ratings economy, a result of the intuitiveness of rating products and services with just one tap, is one of the foremost consequences of this trend. In some pseudo-LaPierre fashion, this system tends to work really well. Just as brandishing a weapon affords even the smallest man a great level of influence over those around him, being able to rate everything from a driver to a home allows for the type of regulation that, for most businesses, otherwise requires a large number of middle-managers. Overall, it sounds great, and it is.

But while a review on Uber or Postmates is supposed to reflect the quality of service alone, it’s no secret that this doesn’t tell the whole story. By at least in part evaluating the person doing the job, the system encourages subservient behavior that, while theoretically effective, can be demeaning to workers and uncomfortable for customers. The ratings system often discourages normal human interaction—consider all the silent Uber drivers you’ve come across and you’re getting the idea—and even our normal, gross biases can seep into the equation. This, again, because there’s no real way to critique a person’s job without critiquing that person.

Increasingly, as rating things has become so second-nature in our “consumerist culture,” the act of rating itself has begun to move outwards into areas not previously considered rate-able—a person bringing you food, or someone you went on a date with.

One of the more extreme examples of this trend is Peeple, an app that posits that users simply rate other humans as humans. Peeple was met coldly by its desired demographic: just about everyone. I’d venture to say that Peeple, while not so fundamentally different than some of the apps I’ll mention, draws particular ire for its lack of subtlety—that, while we are already rating people in one form or another, at least it’s usually tied to some sort of service, like taxi driving. Peeple is simply about whether I like you in a “Professional,” “Personal,” or “Dating” capacity. Somehow we’ve found the line (at least for now) with ratings apps, and that line is Peeple. Though we’ve been passively (perhaps unwittingly) rating people for a while now, directly and openly doing so was deemed socially unacceptable. I reached out to Peeple’s co-founders, to no avail.

Between the indirect people-rating involved with Uber or AirBnB, and the overt people-rating featured in Peeple, popular dating apps have emerged as an arena where this issue becomes most fraught. Below, I explore two such apps (no, not Tinder) where this debate subtly plays out. Serious moral concerns of mutual policing, self-policing, and the commodification of people in marketplaces of profiles are especially apparent in, though definitely not exclusive to, the apps discussed below. In an online sphere where such apps are propagating, I hope to figure out exactly what sort of weight our swipes carry.

Grading People

If it seems we’re becoming ever more accustomed to people-grading, The Grade is a prime example. Its mission statement is nothing if not commendable: a “female-friendly” platform that siphons out all those undesirable, creepy, or even dangerous men one might find on any given dating app. Essentially, it’s Tinder where swipe data is processed to kick particularly crude users out of the game. Sounds good so far.

But then there’s that uneasy feeling of having a letter grade assigned to your, or frankly anyone’s profile. Each user receives an overall grade, ranging from an A+ to an F, as one would for a homework assignment, except in this case it shows up prominently alongside your name and picture. Grades are determined, according to The Grade’s website, by “quality, responsiveness, and peer-reviews.” You can’t write out reviews—you are only able to select a (Y) or (N) for any given user. In this way the app’s creators were smart, and avoided the pitfalls of Peeple: everyone passively contributes to everyone else’s grade, and algorithms take care of the specifics.

This lonely, single writer decided to venture into The Grade himself for an inside look. Knowing I’d be evaluated on the merits of my profile, I filled out all the information, which I don’t usually do. I provided as many pictures as possible, which was especially difficult since I’m not one to indulge in selfies, let alone post them on Facebook. In order to draw positive reviews, I figured my main picture would have to be of me smiling, and perhaps with friends, to show I’m amiable—the final choice wasn’t in high definition, but such is life. As a topping I included a little appetizer of an ‘About’ description, though I imagine it doesn’t factor into one’s grade (that one was just for the ladies ;)…).

If you’ll excuse all this self-indulgence, there’s a point I’m making: the specter of a grade loomed large over every action I took within the app. I spent notably less effort creating my Tinder account (which I wish I could say I did for purposes of research for this article, though that’d imply that I haven’t had one for a while now, which I have). As a result, you can find out more about me from my account on The Grade than on Tinder, and I took care to follow the rules of it all. Arguably, the pictures I ended up using were chosen less so to be attractive or sexy (though those qualities happen to be a byproduct of any picture of me, obviously) than personable and inviting. In short, my final profile ended up being more positive than they might have been had this grading system not applied.

I reached out to founder and president Cliff Lerner to discuss the potential pitfalls of designing an algorithm for such an app. In describing what exactly one is to read into a user’s grade, he wrote something that I found of subtle interest: “The grade can reflect how responsive users are, the quality of their messages including spelling/grammar mistakes, if other users think the person is of high character or not.  We believe these are helpful cues in deciding whether someone is a good match while also encouraging respectful behavior and penalizing offenders.” According to this idea, an algorithm conducted by an emotionless computer is designed to equate things like spelling and grammar with “whether someone is a good match.” Other than broad strokes of whether someone is basically a good person (vote thumbs up or thumbs down), the algorithm is largely measuring a user’s ability to effectively abide by its guiding rules. An ‘A+’ begins to lose meaning when you know it’s derived from spelling and grammar in messages. We all know texting is distinct from formal written language, so it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to encourage people to spell out “rolling on the floor laughing.” Nonetheless, my view of two strangers I’ve never met before is instantaneously tainted by the difference between one’s A grade and the other’s B-.

That feels a bit different, though, than receiving a letter grade in school. Any letter grade I got back in the day for a test or paper was a function of my work ethic and knowledge of material, the implication being that, should I choose to work harder next time, there’s no reason why my grade wouldn’t improve in parallel. What’s more, these grades were never meant to reflect upon me as a whole person, only my understanding of specific subject matter at a certain time in my life, which could be improved upon at any time thereafter. Any letter grade on any given assignment therefore only remained relevant so long as it affected my overall class grade, which itself only mattered insofar as it affected my prospects of admission to future higher education. Taken to its extreme, the prospect of a “The Grade”-type system infiltrating our culture at large—say, if it were to be implemented in a Facebook or Instagram—would mean us walking around every day with a letter just about ingrained on each of our foreheads.

Reviewing People

If The Grade wasn’t out-there enough for you, consider Stroovy. Co-founded by a former wide receiver for the San Diego Chargers, Quinn Early, it’s a dating app without the dating—its only function is to have users write reviews of people they’ve dated. In short, the app links to external dating apps’ accounts, allowing users to evaluate the profiles of people they know (even, or perhaps especially, those who aren’t Stroovy users). To be clear, you cannot incite a date with anyone via Stroovy, only consult the app either to read or write a review. With Stroovy you can even review a review, with a thumbs up or down, or a comment.

Admittedly, I was a bit skeptical at the idea of an app that combines the displeasure of people reviewing other people as people with the inability to even act upon any of it with any sort of swipe-left-swipe-right or equivalent mechanism. When I reached out to Quinn to ask about what happens when you create a culture of mutual policing in a time-honored social construction like dating, he sent me a pie chart with user data indicating that approximately four out of five Stroovy reviews are generally positive.

Four out of five positive reviews seems promising, though I realized quickly that the majority of positive reviews must, in large part, be a function of the accountability built into the app’s mechanisms itself. The anonymity that encourages negativity in YouTube comments sections, for example, isn’t present in an app where your face, your name and your dating profile are all tied to your same account that’s used for reviewing others. Anyone you give a bad review to may, in theory, return the favor—it’s the same reason why people who act with vitriol online tend to avoid such behavior in the outside world. While the app’s functionality does seem to encourage positivity (and we could all use a bit more of that around the internet), the cost is that it’s all a little incomplete.

Putting aside the culture of internet anonymity, though, there is an even odder phenomenon occurring within the framework of this app.

Stroovy, like The Grade, was created with only the best intentions of sorting out all the sour grapes of the dating world. The idea emerged from Quinn’s partner Rebecca Isner’s widely unpredictable online dating history which, though mostly unremarkable, was interspersed with some truly hazardous individuals. It only makes sense that Rebecca would have wanted to avoid those bad experiences, while still keeping the good ones, so the two of them went out and created a potential solution.

Like my back-and-forth with Cliff Lerner of The Grade, a subtle aspect of Quinn’s otherwise glowing responses struck me as much more significant than meets the eye. In describing how the idea for Stroovy originated, he told me how “Rebecca is the type of person that uses Yelp, Rate My Professors, and the Amazon star rating system. She says that, ‘We spend more time researching a blender than we do the person that we’re potentially going to spend time with.’ So she thought to herself, ‘Why isn’t there a way to authenticate a potential date?’”

At first astonished me how nonchalantly Rebecca equated a blender with a human being. Part of the issue here is that while safety is an important aspect of dating, a Stroovy review goes much further than that, allowing reviewers to touch on any aspect of a person. As I mentioned with The Grade, “authenticating” a human being isn’t so cut-and-dry as authenticating a commodity. You and many others, for example, might advise strongly against dating Donald Trump, whereas almost half the nation might disagree. Of course, she didn’t mean to say that a blender is the same as a person, but nonetheless indicated that the approach to a new blender may be associatively applied to new people in one’s life.

Looking People in the Eye

So we return to our original question: what weight do our swipes carry?

On one hand, it’s nothing; hot, attractive enough, ugly, whatever, these decisions do not particularly affect the world. In some sense, though, our swiping system is a microcosm of humanity’s most fundamental concerns, like lust, dehumanization, and social accountability. More to the point, dating apps also seem to bring many issues specific to the internet age—the socialization of business and services, the separation of person and profile (side note: if our devices really do get implanted in our bodies in the future, the issue of accountability might just disappear right then and there) and the commodification of personal information—to the forefront. These issues are beginning to manifest in ways we’ve never seriously had to consider before in human history. They’re only revealing themselves now, perhaps because of the notion that technology is somehow inherently separated from our “real,” physical reality, which, increasingly, it is not.

For you and me right now, though, a swipe means giving into an imperfect system. If I know anything about dating (which I don’t), it’s that we’re all lonely, and particularly willing to give ourselves to media with the potential to connect us with other human beings.



Nathaniel NelsonNathaniel Nelson (N8) is a filmmaker and writer.