A Hearty Thumbs Up for Five Stars
"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment."
At the start of each new year, I send out recommendations of the best books and movies I finished in the year prior. I harbor no illusions that I am the Anton Ego of Substack. Rather, sending out recommendations is the best way to receive them back, giving me a lead on what I should prioritize reading and watching in the new year.
When deciding which movies and books I want to share with my circle, I look through my Letterboxd and StoryGraph accounts and filter for the pieces of media which I rated the highest upon completion; on both platforms, the scale peaks at five stars. Having logged my reads and watches for roughly two years now, I can confirm I am highly selective with my perfect ratings. Out of the 90 or so movies I watch in a year, only two or three will be awarded a perfect score. I read fewer books, so the comparison isn’t perfect, but I handed out a lone five-out-of-five score (to Matthew Desmond’s Evicted) in 2022.
I have written before about why I like logging media. Essentially, in a world with hundreds of emails, texts, TikToks, and Twitter alternatives calling for my attention from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep, it can be easy to finish the final sentence of a book, close it up, and never think about it again. Logging a novel or film and writing its brief review for my profile requires me to go back and consciously process what I completed, evaluating a work’s merits as I argue with myself about whether Equilibrium was a three- or three-and-a-half-star movie.
The fabulous Black Mirror episode “Nosedive”, which lambasted the proliferation of reviews by posing the question “What if we reviewed every interaction?”, premiered nearly seven years ago.1 While Rashida Jones and Michael Schur, writers of the episode, credited the performative nature of social media with inspiring the premise, to me the episode has always made me think of gig work platforms like Uber and DoorDash.
At the end of a ride booked through a platform like Uber, both the passenger and driver are prompted to rate one another. I still remember the disappointment when I lost my perfect 5.00 passenger rating on Uber, hampered by a (merited) one star review when one of my college roommates got sick on himself in a ride I foolishly agreed to book in the rush to get him home from the bars.
While Uber has never confirmed the minimum score required of users, it was widely reported in 2019 that drivers and passengers alike are both booted from the app if their score drops below a 4.60 average. Theoretically, you could be rated four stars every trip — an 80%, more than a passing grade in academia — and lose access to Uber forever. As a result, the universally accepted yet forever unspoken rule is that the only two options at the end of a trip are five stars or one star, with one star reserved for a true disaster, like verbal harassment or playing Kidz Bop when handed the aux.’
Subscribing to my blog is the equivalent of giving me a five star rating as a human
This upward pressure, where anything less than five stars, has permeated most facets of online life. How many of you have seen a restaurant rated 4.1 stars on Yelp and reconsidered whether you should attend? I had to scroll 13 results deep before I found an HDMI cable rated below 4.7 stars on Amazon.
The ubiquitous trend on the internet of converting the five-star system into a binary five is good, one is bad, represents a serious break from decades of more formal reviewing practices. Consider the New York Times restaurant review scale, where garnering a single star (out of four, rather than five) is a noteworthy achievement. Earning a mere mention in the annual MICHELIN Guide, let alone a single star, is a career-defining achievement for a chef.
Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert, who reviewed movies for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967-2013, stated that when he first started publishing his critiques in the paper, he felt 2.5 stars out of five denoted a “perfectly acceptable” movie. Over the course of his career, he felt pressured to move to using three stars to signify a “thumbs up” and that 2.5 stars became more of a “thumbs down.” Other legacy movie review sites rate movies from zero to four stars, like the New York Times does for restaurants.
Ebert himself went on to write that despite dedicating his life to reviewing movies and television, he never thought the star scale made sense. He was partial to the Little Man system used by the San Francisco Chronicle, believing it more accurately represented the breadth of experiences movies can impart on viewers.
The pandemic, especially that early period when it seemed like the disaster would unite society rather than irreparably amplify its divisions, caused many full-time reviewers to rethink how they approached their criticism. Eater, my personal go-to for restaurant reviews, announced it was making its hiatus from the star scale permanent in 2021. The New York Times waited until June 2022 to bring back its wonky four star system for restaurant critiques, while the Washington Post’s food critic ceased to include stars for good in October of that same year.
I am grateful for Letterboxd and StoryGraph. They help me organize my thoughts, track progress toward my annual goals, and discover works of culture I never would have found on my own. But lately, I have noticed the star rating invading my thoughts in the middle of watching a movie or reading a book. Rather than immersing myself in the world building and character conflict playing out before my eyes, I am debating internally over what score the art merits.
All of that begs the question: with professional critics moving away from scoring their reviews at all, why do I, with my eight Letterboxd followers and 172 Substack readers, bother assigning scores to things at all?
All the way back in 2009, YouTube, on the path to becoming the largest social network in the world, switched from a five-star scale to a thumbs up or thumbs down system. In its defense, the video platform shared data showing that five-star reviews dominated the ratings.
Twelve years later, YouTube made the number of thumbs down ratings received by a video private, citing an experiment that showed users were less likely to dislike a video if they could not see how many others had disliked the video. While YouTube won’t confirm it, most believe that sometime in 2022, the dislike button became entirely superficial, a vestigial reminder of a time when users were trusted enough to influence their own viewing experiences.
Scoring media isn’t a perfect practice. There are uncontrollable situations, like the pandemic, that may necessitate a deviation from normal standards. Occasionally, I finish a movie and realize I truly can’t rate it on a five-star scale, like when I first watched Starship Troopers. Often, these movies are those which made me think the most, a phenomenon I explain in the written portion of my Letterboxd entries when appropriate.
At the same time, I still see value in condensing an experience, be it a quality meal, work of art, or online purchase, into a numeric value. The stars a work receives are not everything — far from it. I have enjoyed several two-star movies and found a few near-perfect, 4.5-star movies to be quite boring.
But the practice of giving out scores and maintaining a consistent internal scale prevents one from falling into the Uber and YouTube pit of binary despair, where the only options for describing an experience are “great” or “terrible”, nuance is abandoned favor of convenience, and the overwhelming instinct is to move on to the next thing to be liked or disliked, never reflecting on experiences past.
Things I Enjoyed This Week
The Last Social Network | Where’s Your Ed At (fellow Substacker)
State usury law caps loan rates, yet most lenders are exempt | Los Angeles Times
A Star is Torn: getting to the heart of the low-rated movies that we love | Letterboxd’s Journal
The undocumented workers who built Silicon Valley | The Washington Post
This is likely to be the only post I send out this month, as I will have spent at least a few days in each week of July sleeping somewhere other than my apartment. When I finally settle back into my routine in August, expect a flurry of posts to hit your inbox as I am actively thinking through multiple different topic ideas. Have something you want me to write about? Leave a comment and let me know.
Otherwise, I hope your July is going well and you are staying cool. Thank you as always for reading my work!
Community did this concept first in the 2014 episode “App Development and Condiments”. I award you five MeowMeowBeans for reading this footnote.