We’ve had a lot to say on the subject of one-star reviews over the last few years. Consumers have used them to protest practices they didn’t like, be they windowing the publication of an ebook, applying unfriendly DRM to video games, or even double-dipping on Lord of the Rings DVD releases.
Beyond that, organized rating or voting campaigns have become a favorite tool for online activists, be they Gamergaters who want to smear the works of feminists whom they loathe (or feminist movies like the Paul Feig Ghostbusters remake), Sad or Rabid Puppies who want to influence or trash the Hugo Awards respectively, Greenpeace downrating Amazon’s Fire phone, or even the wags who tried to force a British government agency to name its newest research vessel “Boaty McBoatface.”
The Hollywood Reporter has the story of the latest such incident to make the news. The Promise, a movie about the controversial Armenian genocide during World War I, has seen its Internet Movie Database listing receive 100,000 1-star votes as the result of a campaign by those who would deny there was a genocide at all. IMDB has said that there’s not a lot they can do, and even with the filmmakers organizing their own campaign to vote the movie back up, it’s still only ranked at 5 stars on IMDB (4.2 when the article was written). While I’ve called this sort of voting effort “slacktivism” because it takes so little thought or effort to do, it has the potential to be devastatingly effective for an obscure title on a widely used site like the IMDB.
This may not seem like it has a lot to do with ebooks directly, but it’s really a matter of great importance to any form of media. After all, our means of purchasing or subscribing to books, music, movies, and video games are increasingly migrating to digital forums, which are more susceptible to that sort of organized manipulation. Given how much has already been said about the added difficulty of discovering new works online, activists gaming the ratings for ideological reasons is not going to make it any easier. In the end, it’s going to be up to sites that allow review rankings to figure out their own way of dealing with this issue.
The Hugos implemented rule changes to try to diminish the effectiveness of ballot-box-stuffing campaigns like the two sets of Puppies’. Netflix, as the Hollywood Reporter piece notes, changed from star ratings to a collaborative filtering recommendation system tailored at picking things individual viewers will want to see without assigning an objective quality score.
And Amazon’s been implementing its own efforts to curb the effectiveness of activist reviews. Looking at that Lord of the Rings Blu-ray set, I see that even though 33% of the 10,077 customer ratings are still one-star, the set’s aggregate rating is 4.5 stars. (Though the Spore video game listing still shows a 1.5 star aggregate rating, so clearly Amazon’s efforts aren’t 100% effective.) Perhaps Amazon might consider extending those efforts to ratings in the Internet Movie Database, which it owns. (It’s possible it already has taken some steps, given that the current IMDB rating list for The Promise shows fewer total ratings than the 100,000 1-star plus 40,000 5-star from the opposing campaign should make up.)
I imagine review rating activism will continue to be a contentious issue for some time to come. But as we move to living more of our lives and making more of our purchases online, all these Internet sites, stores, and forums are going to have to deal with it one way or another.