I recently regained access to some of my earliest written reviews that I did for the sadly now defunct Spotisfaction (I will be posting these on here at some point just to keep my writing in one place) and I was reminded that on Spotisfaction I was required to give a score for the albums I was reviewing. I remember that at the time this was a little odd for me as I tend to write about how an album makes me feel and not rate it on some scale and seeing the reviews again has made me revisit my thoughts on ratings.
Now if you go to pretty much any review site whether it’s film, TV, gaming or indeed music and you will see that they have ratings on their reviews. I understand that ratings are a quick and easy way for someone scanning the site to see what the reviewers think are good albums to listen to, good films to see or good games to play but what do these ratings actually mean?
If a friend of mine comes up to me and recommends a movie to me I know this person and they know me, they know my tastes and I know theirs so if they are saying that they think I’ll like the movie then there is a good chance I will. But if I look at the rating of the same film all it’s telling me is how much the reviewer liked the movie on some arbitrary scale, or if you are a cynic how well the reviewer was rewarded for giving a high score.
Here we begin to see my problem with ratings. Firstly there is the scale. There are generally three ways of giving a score on a review, a score out of five, a score out of ten or a percentage. For the ratings to be useful you need to have some sort of bench mark. This is where it all starts getting tricky, do you assume that as with a lot of things the scoring will be along a bell curve with the majority of scores falling within a range with the exceptional few off to one end and the exceptionally bad off to the other? If this is the case the sensible thing to do would be to put the top of the curve in the middle of your scoring set. If you do this you’ll find the majority of the reviews score two, three or four out of five, three, four, five, six or seven out of ten or in the range of thirty to seventy percent. Nothing wrong with that in principle but you try telling someone that a movie, book or album that has a score of less that half of the scoring matrix is a good album and you’ll find some disbelief.
With this in mind you’ll find that a lot of sites and publications skew their scores up the scale slightly. For those that deal with big publishers, film studios and record labels this is a good thing because if you keep giving scores of three out of five or five out of ten you may find your early review access to material being rescinded, this may not seem like a big thing but the impact it has on ad revenue can be significant if your review of the latest blockbuster comes out a week or two after everyone else.
So where does this leave us? If you are working with a five star rating and you are having to give most scores above the median then you devoid of options of scores you can give unless you start giving half stars in which case why not give a score out of ten or partial stars in which case why not just give a percentage.
You may now be thinking that I am in favour of percentage scores but with a percentage you have a greater variance in the scores you can give but then you are stuck with defining what a single percent is worth. For example take Radiohead’s catalogue, is King of Limbs five percent worse than The Bends or ten percent? Is OK Computer one or two percent better than Kid A? The nuances of fine tuning a score in this case can be very difficult.
Does all this mean that I am against ratings in reviews? Not entirely. The point I have been trying to get to is that ratings are massively subjective. Most reviews tend to be of some form of art, whether it be music, acting, writing or anything else, and appreciation of all these things comes entirely down to taste, what one person may like someone else may hate. So in order for a review to have worth you need to know the reviewer, you need to know what they are like and what they like.
And do you know the best way to get to know a reviewer? Read their reviews!
If you do this you’ll get a better understanding of why they like or dislike what it is they are reviewing, from their comparisons to other material you come to understand where their tastes which you may find correspond with your own and may lead you to discover other books, films, TV shows or bands that you had no idea about.
So don’t go for the instant gratification of seeing that something has a score of seven out of ten from some unknown reviewer instead go out and read various reviews from various people, find someone whose opinion you generally agree with (it is unlikely that you agree fully with anyone as everyone has different tastes) and use them as a starting point. You will find that if you have similar tastes in one area you will often have similar tastes in other areas and if you actually read their full reviews, blog posts and other materials you will come across references and recommendations to things you may never have considered if all you look at was a simple star rating
Essentially this is a long winded way of me saying that I don’t put scores next to my reviews, I generally only write reviews of things I like so scores are pretty redundant. But if you happen to like something that I have reviewed then check out some of the other things I have written about as maybe you’ll find a gem or two.