While ratings systems may encourage good behaviour on the part of the provider and recipient, it’s a hungry business model that is both anxiety-inducing and untrustworthy. 

In Seth MacFarlane’s off-beat homage to Star Trek, The Orville, the increasingly earnest show becomes a series of cautionary tales. In one episode, Majority Rules, MacFarlane signals the dangers of the real world mirroring the online one. The crew of the Orville attempt to rescue a couple of imprisoned anthropologists from an Earth-like planet, where justice is meted out based on a system of public votes. In deep trouble, the public will determine their innocence with a ‘thumbs-up’ or ‘thumbs-down’. 

I didn’t love the show, but Majority Rules lingers in my mind because even though determining a person’s freedom by public votes seems ludicrous, isn’t this happening daily online already, to varying degrees of severity? 

There is, of course, the modern-day equivalent of the stocks. But instead of passers-by throwing fruit and jeering, people find ways to do it in 140 characters or less, hashtags optional.  

But seemingly more innocuous judgments are made elsewhere, and they affect how we live, work and engage with others. When you consider the services and experiences that make up your daily life, how many of them involve ratings? Businesses rely on reviews from Google, Yelp, Trip Advisor and so on, as do we as consumers.  

And of course, your transport and food delivery apps depend on them. The meal you ordered through a delivery app arrived soggy and not at all like it looked in the photo? Blame the rider who didn’t pedal fast enough, bypass the restaurant. Your food was terrible and the low-paid delivery rider is the low-hanging fruit. They get one star. Hated the music your Uber driver was playing? Give them a poor rating – though you should know, with Uber they can give you one back. 

In November this year, it was reported that a study from the University of Bristol and University of Oxford found seven out of 10 gig economy workers were in a constant state of worry about negative reviews and the impact they would have on their livelihood. The lead author and sociologist, Dr Alex Wood, Lecturer in Human Resource Management and Future of Work at Bristol, noted: “It was shocking how workers expressed continuous worry about the potential consequences of receiving a single bad rating from an unfair or malevolent client, and how this could leave them unable to continue making a living.” 

This anxiety over ratings is understandable. It’s not that criticism is a fresh concept (in the arts world, we are constantly subjected to review). But in the gig economy, not only can customer-generated scores sink or boost workers’ reputations, they culminate in an advertising and rewards system. The better you’re rated, the more accolades you receive, often in the form of badges that signal that you are a superstar. It’s a clever marketing tactic, because as consumers we follow the high ratings, but it’s also a way to encourage good behaviour all round because often apps rate both provider and consumer.

Ratings systems are surveillance and compliance systems, a very public message board, which mostly empower the consumer. But these ratings can also be used to falsely entice us.

Years ago, I employed the services of transcribers on a gig website. Despite having a catchy price point, the cost of the service, quite rightly, rose according to the needs of the job. And yet, the work was not done to a reasonable standard. I chose not to leave negative reviews, but the service providers pushed me to so I relented and gave them four out of five stars. I understood: they were trying to make a living. Then they sent me messages asking (borderline haranguing) me to change my review to a perfect score.  

They were jockeying for work but cutting corners then demanding positive reviews. I gave in, feeling guilty, knowing that they were boosting their reliability to secure more work they didn’t seem capable of actually completing.  

Meanwhile, try leaving an honest review on AirBnB, and you will understand why so many places are given rave reviews but fall short. No one wants to tell the truth when they are being judged back.  

What a circular mess. 

How can we trust ratings systems like this? Can scores be trusted given how freely, and sometimes anonymously, they can be applied? Meanwhile, even though ratings systems can be a useful barometer of a service provider’s reliability or competence, they may also be completely false endorsements. Increasingly, we are being warned about fake reviews, which set out to uplift or destroy a business. It pays to read comments carefully rather than rely on the rating itself. 

We are increasingly being taught to assess every service or experience, and it is not a thorough, or necessarily fair, feedback system for either party to a transaction.

No longer are workers simply ‘freelancers’ if they are self-employed; in a world of food delivery and transport services, of competitive freelance websites like Fiverr and Upwork, everyday commerce has been twisted and turned into a thriving, cut-throat marketplace. One where workers’ rights are blurred, where bad reviews are doled out hastily, spitefully or truthfully, but without any oversight to ascertain their veracity.  

The gig economy has long been examined for its flaws. Despite the opportunities and ease-of-access a casualised, sharing economy creates, with it comes crushing downsides: the dilution of employee rights, the lowering of fees just to secure the gig – and with that, quite likely, standards. Skilled workers get edged out of industries when they are undercut by less experienced people willing to do the job at a fraction of the actual cost.  

Ratings systems encourage good behaviour but we are becoming hyper vigilant and more critical in the process. While business is booming, this explosion in feedback is not making us better workers or customers. Time will tell if this is, ultimately, bad for business. We already know that it is taking its toll on providers.