December 03, 2012

Overrated

Peter_kaufmanBy Peter Kaufman

Have you noticed that almost everything these days is reviewed and rated? No matter what goods or services you use it is likely that it will be judged by other consumers on some 4 or 5 star rating system or with a simple thumbs up and thumbs down. Thumbs

For example, this morning at the sound of my watch alarm I took my head off my pillow, pushed my body off my mattress, stepped onto the bedroom carpet, and opened the blinds to let in the morning sunlight. I walked into the bathroom to shower using my daily facial wash, soap, and shampoo. I dried off with a towel while the ceiling fan in the bathroom pulled the moisture out of the air. I got dressed in my typical fashion: underwear (don’t worry, that’s not a picture of me wearing them), socks, pants, shirt, and shoes. For breakfast I used a small pot to cook my oatmeal, poured a glass of orange juice, and got some filtered water for tea.  After breakfast I cleaned my teeth using my toothbrush, toothpaste, and mouthwash, I put my books in my backpack, grabbed my water bottle and went off to work. You get the idea!

Keep in mind that these are only the rated products that I used in the first hour since waking up. Imagine how many products would be highlighted if I kept these hyperlinks going all day? We are clearly in a state of ratings overload.

StarsBut products are not the only things that are subject to customer evaluations. Most services are rated too. You probably already know that you can rate professors and teachers as well as colleges and universities and elementary and secondary schools. You can also rate restaurants, movies, doctors, dentists, politicians, police officers, real estate agents, plumbers, roofers, gardeners, electricians, banks, hotels, vacations, airports, and airlines (you can even rate your airline seat). 

So what does all of this mean? How do we make sense of the fact that nearly everything we buy and nearly all of the services we use are part of this proliferating system of ratings? We know these ratings tell us something about the goods and services we are considering. But what do all of these ratings tell us about the society in which we live?

One classical sociological theory that might help explain this modern-day phenomenon is VeblenThorstein Veblen’s idea of conspicuous consumption. Veblen suggested that sometimes we purchase things not because we need them but because we want to impress others with our purchasing power. He said that “conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means of reputability” for women and men in society. In other words, one way to secure a high standing among one’s peers is to purchase things that will impress them.

Although this theory was written in 1899 it still has resonance today. In fact, I would argue that our desire to rate things adds another layer to Veblen’s theory. Acquiring highly rated goods and services has the potential to increase the status of your consumption: not only did you buy this 60” HD 3D Plasma TV but it also received 4 stars from over 300 Amazon.com customers. Veblen could not have predicted this additional level of conspicuous consumption because Princetonthe dissemination of information was radically different in the early 1900s than it is now. Nevertheless, it seems clear that both sellers and buyers of goods and services are often aware of these ratings and use them as a form of promotion.  

Another way to understand this dramatic increase in ratings is to point to the potentially democratizing effect of the Internet. One of the main reasons for the proliferation of ratings is that technology gives us the capability to easily review, rate, and read about goods and services. Because of the Internet, each of us can add our two-cents to the ever-unfolding commentary about something we just purchased or some service we just used. Ratings are no longer solely in the domain of so-called experts or critics; instead, everyday users of products now have an equal voice in expressing their opinions. 

ProductAlthough most of the rating systems are geared exclusively to the buyers and sellers, there are rating systems that offer a more sociological view of goods and services. What I mean by this is that the evaluations on these alternative rating sites are not based on customer’s contentment.  Instead, the rating takes into consideration other factors such as the labor conditions of the workers, the company’s carbon footprint, the use or abuse of animals, the promotion of fair trade practices, and the company’s donations or givebacks to non-profit organizations. Rating systems such as these are sociological because they embrace a perspective of interdependence whereby the common good is promoted over individual satisfaction.      

BurtsOne example of such a site is the Good Guide. This site rates thousands of products from personal care to food to apparel to electronics, and the ratings are based on the social, environmental and health impacts these products have. You can analyze many commonly consumed products and see how they (or the company that produces them) measure up in terms of nutrition, environmental pollution, energy efficiency, worker’s rights, community outreach, animal welfare, and a host of other issues.

As the holiday season kicks into high gear I imagine that many of us will be swept up in the quest to acquire the perfect goods and services. In our current state of excessive ratings it is difficult for any of us to be immune from this ubiquitous system of stars and thumbs. So when these ratings pop up on your computer screen and you experience first-hand our overrated society you may want to ask yourself: Am I overly influenced by these ratings or just plain overloaded?

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Comments

Great piece, Peter! I will most definitely be checking out that site on a regular basis and share this with others. :)

Now if only there was a "like"button so I could emphasize my enjoyment... Hehe

In a planet of 7 billion, does our personal preference mean more, or less?

Another clever and creative piece of writing Peter...

...my reflection...I use these ratings systems quite often...more than I would like to admit!

Hey Peter -- great work, as usual. I think we can all agree that Sociology is not overrated. (Sorry, couldn't resist!)

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