Monday, January 9, 2017

Rank you for rating me

Sean MacEntee / Flickr
In the early 2000s, I caught a glimpse of the future. Not in the way you are thinking - this was no foreshadowing of the invention of shrink rays, teleportation, or flying cars. It was something altogether more all-consuming and sinister.

Browsing the internet and delving deep into its most pitiful depths, my mom discovered a website where you could rate user-submitted images on their subject's level of attractiveness. I, the ever-present lurker of the household, found myself peeking over her shoulder as she compulsively clicked through photos in a sort of prehistoric Tinder-esque manner. Crowding her screen were men in worn white tank tops and women making seductive eyes at the camera in photos that played ancestor to the modern day selfie. It was hard not to mindlessly judge-and-click, judge-and-click.

I could not have been older than 10 when I learned about this website, but I soon became captivated by it. Though I was still falling for the cutest boy actors on the Disney Channel, I browsed through this site with its unusual crop of 20 or 30-somethings. It was hard not to be titillated by the voyeuristic enjoyment of rating people who were somewhere between hopelessly narcissistic and completely self-loathing.

In hindsight, the idea of clicking a number between one and 10 on someone's looks is a vulgar and destructive preoccupation. Yet to this day we are taking part in a game not unlike the one those hopeful "hot" people played almost two decades ago. And we barely seem to notice it.

There has not been any lack of literature and pop culture attention paid to this subject. The damaging effect of reputations built on social media and cyberbullying has been fodder for everything from local newscasts to teen horror films as of late.

Still we turn a blind eye to how pervasive ratings and rankings are in every facet of our lives in the 21st century.

I walk down the street and see a beautiful sunset. I take a photo. Am I satisfied to enjoy it in that old classic way - be it a photo album or a slideshow - perhaps shared once or twice with close friends? No, that would be absurd. I must post it to Instagram, because nothing is experienced well when experienced alone.

I try out a new restaurant and the food tastes like it was dragged out of a trash bin. Do I mention it to the wait staff? Why go through the awkwardness when I can just write them a scathing review on Yelp. Maybe I will earn some virtual badge of honor for my valiant effort to eat out on a Saturday night.

While these aren't characteristics I covet, I struggle with them constantly. Living in the moment just does not provide that immediate and insatiable burst of excitement that getting the first like on a Facebook post might. There is no lack of scholarly analysis about the neurological effects that social media can have on us. But at what cost do we take these hits of dopamine?

A favorite passage of mine comes from Dave Eggers' novel The Circle in which the protagonist must contend with her results in a popularity vote. Her coworkers are asked to vote on whether or not they like her, and when a small percentage respond negatively she goes into a tailspin.
"...she knew she should feel good about 97 percent of the campus finding her awesome. But as she left the hall, and made her way across campus, she could only think of the 3 percent who did not find her awesome."
The longer the time to ruminate, the more destructive her thoughts become:
"She was being stabbed. She had been stabbed. Who were these people? What had she done to them? They didn’t know her. Or did they?"
Until eventually her anxiety turns to paranoia.
"She was hurt by them, by the 368 votes to kill her. Every one of them preferred her dead...To frown at her, to stick their fingers at that button, to shoot her that way, it was a kind of murder."
The sincerity of the narration - its unfettered belief in the cuckoo bananas notion that vocal dislike is akin to murder was all too ridiculous. At the same time, it rang true.

While the way we digitally interact with others is easy to dismiss, just because something is not tangible does not mean it is not real. Little slights on social media can feel as if they have happened in person due to their effect on the brain. Ambivalence or, even worse, apathy to one's online presence can send an all-too-obsessed mind into a downward spiral.

In another dystopian narrative, the "Nosedive" episode of Black Mirror, ratings become the basis for a stratification of a society. People who are able to capture the highest ratings are allotted exclusive perks and privileges while those who reject that system become society's outcasts.

Perhaps because fiction depicts these ideas with such outrageous results, it can be hard to take them seriously. But in little myriad ways, the harm done by quantifying our worth via positive reinforcement is making us less people and more machines. We can control our portrayal so systematically that we know exactly what we can and cannot express. Perhaps we hold back what we would like to share. And if we don't hold back, we do it with the understanding that we may end up ostracized for what seems like a trivial reason.

To put oneself in the line of fire for feedback used to seem crazy. It was too on the nose, too obvious, too scary. Asking someone if you're pretty has too destructive a spectrum of answers. We are skeptical of those who search for this kind of affirmation and worried for those who lack the confidence to feel good in their own skin.

On some level, though, we are all still asking to be told where we stand between one and 10.


  1. This is a great post! I think Black Mirror's "Nosedive" is the best episode out of all 3 seasons. It made me really reflect on what social media does to a person. It's amazing how the amount of numbers you get on an account or photo affects a person's mood for the day.

    1. Thanks! That episode really got to me - not only was it visually stunning, but it spoke to that very real struggle between being what we are expected to be and being our true selves. It would be nice if we could turn off that fear of judgment every once in a while.