The fault in our stars. Illustration: Saurabh Singh
EARLY ON A Friday evening, one of the many restaurants in the alleyways of Shahpur Jat is empty and oppressive, as the air-conditioner barely shuffles the air. But slowly the centre table of 12 starts to fill up. Two young women in crop tops, dark red lips and stilettos take their place. They are followed by a guy in a tie and Mohawk hair. Others join, all seemingly in their twenties. Along with their handbags, they also carry an SLR camera packed in its case, which they will soon unsheathe and sling around their necks. A single sheet menu is passed around. The regular restaurant menu makes no appearance. Introductions begin. “Hi, I am dude_underfood.” “Hi, I am appetisinglycity.” (sic) Immediately phones are taken out and buttons swiped. “I am following you.” “I am following you.” “Cool, now I will like six photos of yours.” “Cool.” “I follow anyone who follows me. The only people I don’t follow are the wicked ones—those who follow you in front of you, and then go home and unfollow you.” Beyond their handles, the diners are also recent college graduates, aspiring chefs, UPSC aspirants and content writers. But none of that matters here.
When I say I am not on Instagram, the table shuns me, realising I am not worth their while. I take a quick gulp of my iced tea. “There are no rules here,” I am told, “Except for one—you must allow others to take photos before you try your drink or food. And you just broke that.” “But this is just an ordinary iced tea,” I meekly protest. Singled out as the pariah (no Instagram and sullied iced tea), I shrink further. The food takes inordinately long to arrive. The conversations at the table are awkward at best. Everyone here (all food bloggers or microbloggers) regards the other as competition—in terms of number of followers, personal Zomato rankings, number of photos posted, tally of reviews, restaurant invitations, and access to the Capital’s ‘in’ dos. It is a numbers game at the table; for every review racked up, the reviewer gets 25 points, I am told; and two points for every picture posted.
The microblogger who has snuck me into this event (who has thousands of followers) doesn’t think highly of his fellow diners. “These are mostly interns,” he whispers, “They just come click photos and write something for their bosses. I hired an intern too at one point. Because I can’t be everywhere all the time. In one review, she wrote ‘love’ 14 times. I told her, ‘Pehle dictionary padh lena, phir vaapas aana’ (Study the dictionary first and then come back).” He perhaps has more right to boast than the others. This is his third meal out for the day. He had one food tasting in Connaught Place, another one in Hauz Khas Village, and from here he will head to Gurgaon.
Crumb fried mozzarella balls finally arrive at the table. For the next 10 minutes, the plate is passed around so that photographs can be taken. No one dares take a bite. By the end of the shoot, the balls wilt. But the diners are not discomfited. They portion it out, hum, haw, forks are airlifted, forks put down. An anaemic chocolate shake (with a raspberry twirl) arrives next and is subject to the same treatment. (By the time it is sipped the layer of froth has collapsed into a veil of slime.) Eating and conversation happen briefly, if at all. The sole focus of the evening is—‘bas photo ban jaye.’
After 45 minutes of watching food arrive, food photographed, food nibbled, pleasantries ignored, it is time to leave. I have just been privy to a foodie meet, also called an ‘Instameet’, at a recently opened eatery. My microblogger tells me that these gatherings are par for the course when it comes to restaurant ratings. He is invited mostly by restaurants, but at times by Zomato. Restaurant owners attest to the fact that if their ratings are not in a 4-point range, business suffers. Those that host these ‘meets’ benefit, while others find it harder to fend off competition. Restaurant owners complain that since most online orders come through Zomato and that the commission rate is based on your ratings, matters quickly turn murky.
The ratings of these bloggers, who are ‘trustworthy’ or ‘connoisseurs’ on Zomato, hold more clout than those of regular users. The Zomato site defines them this way: ‘Experts are the folks who know areas in their city inside-out.’ How do you become an expert? The site offers this tip: ‘Write 10 great reviews of restaurants in a particular neighbourhood. Post 50 photos of restaurants in that same neighbourhood—and don’t forget to tag the restaurants, or it won’t count.’
On Zomato, a 29-year-old who is a ’13 connoisseur’ (having hit 20,000 points) says, “I am not a food critic. I am a food influencer.” He adds, “When we bloggers and microbloggers go to a restaurant, we are treated like gods. We get 15 dishes on the table, in the hope that we will like one. I am equivalent to five reviewers, so my rating matters more.” In the last year-and-a-half, he has been to more than 600 restaurants in NCR and says that he has two meals out nearly every day.”
While the crowd as the critic has its own merits, as it lifts the onus from the one to the many, the problem is that we often fail to recognise that the choice of the crowd is also subjective
WHEN IT COMES to ratings, we are all equally complicit. In cities today, the stars have fallen out of the sky and onto our computer screens. Our daily habits—from eating to commuting to shopping to entertainment—are in the stranglehold of stars. But at some point, we also need to step back and ask, are stars a true measure of quality, and more importantly, why do we need stars? Are we incapable of making our own judgements? Must we follow where the herd leads? Don’t ratings prioritise incentives over human conscience? And, of course, should we be making daily-life choices on a system of stars which might or might not be reliable?
Also, we should ask ourselves: often aren’t the bad experiences the most memorable ones? In our quest for an idea of perfection, are we missing out on the happenstance and messiness of life itself?
Dr Angad Chowdhry, partner at Sphinx research, a company which explores the intersections between the humanities and technology, says, “With rankings, we are trying to ensure that our experiences in the world are perfect. It is like a toddler’s behaviour. If something is not exactly as you want it—like my son wanting his milk to be the exact temperature—then you throw a tantrum.”
When we look at stars on a scale of one to five, we are opting for reputation as a hedge against uncertainty. When we travel, we stand outside restaurants, check their ratings, and only then enter. We pick our hotels on TripAdvisor ratings. We buy our phones and electronic gadgets by the length of the yellow. We watch movies and buy books depending on their rankings. We choose our universities by their position in the roll of honour. We look at our employees in a ladder of ‘outstanding’, ‘exceeds expectations’, ‘meets expectations’ and ‘below expectations’. Our lives are governed by a system of rankings and ratings. But do rankings reflect differences or do they create them? Do five star ratings garner more five star ratings thus completing a self-fulfilling prophecy?
If our Uber drivers have 4.2 stars, we believe they’ll never find our location; if he has 4.7, we sit back confident in his ability. If he is a five-star, we know it is his first day at the job. A common party game is to see which guest has the highest Uber rating (I am a respectable but not stellar 4.76. Uber says that high-rated riders have 4.9). The rating system obviously has its perks, it tells the wheat from the chaff. As Uber says, ‘Providing a rating fosters mutual respect between riders and drivers. This strengthens our community and helps everyone get the most from Uber.’ (Community guidelines include: As a passenger, if you need to make a phone call, keep your voice down to avoid disturbing your driver or other riders. And don’t touch or flirt with other people in the car. As a reminder, Uber has a no sex rule.)
But do we need ratings to ‘foster mutual respect between riders and drivers’? Aren’t we devaluing ‘good’ behaviour by incentivising it, shouldn’t it just be part of our DNA? Lynn Stout a professor at Cornell Law School and an expert in corporate governance, financial regulation and moral behaviour, believes that by focusing on these incentives we are ignoring the power of our conscience. In her essay, ‘How Economists Turned Us Blind to Our Own Goodness,’ she writes: ‘This emphasis on ‘incentives’ and ‘accountability’ relies on a homo economics model of purely selfish human behaviour that was developed for theoretical economics, but has since spread to be embraced by policymakers, business leaders, and experts in a wide range of fields from political science to philosophy. Today, it’s hard to find a serious discussion of the possibility that we might encourage or discourage particular behaviours by appealing not to selfishness, but instead to the force of conscience.’ Stout’s work harks back to the ancient texts itself. As the Bhagavad Gita tells us, ‘The ignorant work / For the fruit of their action: / The wise must work also / Without desire…’
Communities have always been built on affirmation. But what we are seeing now, especially online, is an unquenchable thirst for self-affirmation. What the individual does through selfies, companies do through ratings
ARJUN JASSAL, FOUNDER, BlueAnt Digital Intelligence, a company which works ‘in spaces where people, media and technology interact,’ says, “With ratings, the question is how do you take a qualitative experience and give it a number?” As consumers and clients, when we look at ratings, we see it as a system of signalling. Five means excellent. Four means good. And anything below is to be avoided. While the crowd as the critic has its own merits—as it lifts the onus from the one to the many—the problem is that we often fail to recognise that the choice of the crowd is also subjective. Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian film critic, in a recent article on whether Rotten Tomatoes (the aggregation site) is destroying cinema, rightly noted, ‘What I worry about is the people who bizarrely invoke it (Rotten Tomatoes) as an objective measure. It’s incredible how many times I’ve had conversations with people who appear to be in possession of a working brain say: “Ah, but it only got 62 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes” as if they have said something meaningful or even interesting.’
We have come to treat ratings as the benchmark, without acknowledging the pitfalls in the system. We all have been perpetrators and victims of this. How many times have you given an Uber driver fewer stars for trivial reasons (he talked too much, or perhaps, he talked too little)? How many times have we read about ‘fake’ reviews, which have been unfairly used by companies to boost their own ratings? How many hotels and guesthouses have you wanted to unfriend, even after a delightful stay, because they harangued you for a review at the end? A friend even reported that a five-star hotel in Hyderabad wrote a TripAdvisor review under her name and even replied to it, thanking her, for her note on its excellent hospitality. When she raised a fuss about this misrepresentation, they took down the review. A colleague reported that a pizza chain in Delhi didn’t serve him pizza because he refused to part with his phone number, proving that ‘feeding the database’ has become more important than assuaging the customer. Professor Stout elaborates, “Stars and other rating systems fulfil an important function by providing information to potential customers. The problem is that, like all ratings systems, they often can be manipulated, in some cases quite easily. Biased ratings (for example, ratings by a competitor or the business owner him or herself) can have a significant upwards or downwards impact on the rating. Because this is often so easy to do, it can encourage businesses and employees to focus on manipulating theirs and others’ ratings rather than providing good products and services. We shift their focus from a socially positive direction to one that is more socially negative.”
When contacted about fake or fraudulent reviews, TripAdvisor responded that their systems allow for owners and travellers to easily report any concerns. They added that they use ‘sophisticated fraud detection techniques borrowed from the banking sector to identify suspicious review activity, and conduct proactive investigations to catch would-be fraudsters as well’. With ‘trust’ being the business of these companies, it is little surprise that they do their best to guard against the fake reviews. Jassal adds, “Trust is a very big issue today. And less trust is a very big business issue. ” It is a business issue, because ranking is a way for online aggregators to make money. As Chowdhry explains, “Ranking allows these (Airbnb, TripAdvisor, Uber, Zomato) to move from data base to recommendation and therefore the ability to influence consumer decisions. And that is money. Ranking is a way to make money from data… It is an efficient system, where the business makes money and the crowd feels involved. In the end everyone is happy.”
AS CONSUMERS, WE might find reassurance in the ranking system, but we also forget that rankings are just a way to sell more. The insidious machinations of rankings are best represented in Charlie Brooker’s (an English satirist and broadcaster) anthology series Black Mirror . Today the leitmotif of any conversation on ratings is Brooker’s cult episode Nosedive (aired late 2016). The genius of Black Mirror is that it makes dystopia seem just a click away. (The foodie event, for example, that I had witnessed earlier in Shahpur Jat could easily have been choreographed by Charlie Brooker).
Nosedive opens with Lacie Pound (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) jogging, phone in hand and gaze fixed upon it. As she runs, as she stretches, as she orders at a café, as she rides the elevator, she rates people she meets and others online. Despite her repeated attempts to increase her ratings, she remains a 4.2. Her brother who lazes around in his boxers, plays his video games and tells the world to shove off is a ghastly 3.7. Dropping below a 2.5 leads to ostracism. Pound must become a 4.5 in order to avail of a discount to get her dream house in Pelican Cove, “a lifestyle community” according to her, “a eugenics programme” according to her brother. Given her ‘sphere of influence’, an expert studying her ‘rep report analysis’ tells her that it will take her 18 months to hit 4.5. From this starting point, the show spirals into chaos. It tells us, simply and chillingly, that to be human is not to be five stars.
The brilliance of the show is that while it might seem extreme, it is also immediately identifiable. Who hasn’t lamented over the paltriness of ‘likes’ on a profile photo? Who hasn’t experienced the profound aloneness of a tweet that goes unheeded into the universe?
Communities have always been built on affirmation. But what we are seeing now, especially online, is an unquenchable thirst for self-affirmation. What the individual does through selfies, companies do through ratings. Rohit Gupta, historian of Science and Mathematics (aka Compasswallah) says, “The obsession with ratings is an obsession with self-affirmation through micro-acts. An obsession with the feedback loop today is not only the symptom of an existential crisis in the individual, but in everything from corporations to governments. For the individual, it is selfies. For Amazon, it is reviews.For Uber, it is ratings.”
As we curate (a verb that underlines the artifice of the act) our lives deeper and deeper online, as we seek out that ‘perfect’ (deemed so by the crowd) experience, we should, perhaps, step back and take a long view. As Chowdhry says, “I wouldn’t call it the tyranny of ratings. I would call it the fear of meaninglessness. We don’t get any joy from ambiguity—on the contrary, we go out of our way to avoid it. The moment when your sense of self and meaning gets linked to the perfect shareable experience, that is when rankings becomes tyrannical.”
The brother on Nosedive scans the brochure of Pelican Cove and chances upon a woman who is a halo of sunshine and smiles. He looks at the photo and tells his sister who yearns to live there, “No one is this happy, a two-year-old with a fuckin’ balloon is not this happy.” In a scenario where the grip of ratings is unlikely to slacken anytime soon, it would be useful to remind ourselves— that really, no one is that happy, and nothing is that perfect.