Like many people these days, I am super into and slightly terrified by the Netflix show Black Mirror. I found it a couple of years ago, binged as much as I could emotionally handle at once, and have since been slowly but surely working my way through the series. For those of you who are not familiar with Black Mirror, it is a show that features various stories as stand alone episodes in a way that presents them as mini movies with a common central goal – to show us a realistic, futuristic picture of our interactions with technology and one another in a way that is usually horrifying. I’ve wanted to write about Black Mirror and the episode “Nosedive” (Season 3, episode 1) in particular; after @mpduplesmba’s presentation on Wednesday about online reviews, now seems like the right time. If you intend to watch the show/episode in the future (which you should), beware of some spoilers, otherwise lets dive in!
The episode takes place in a society that uses technology through eye implants and mobile devices to rate one another on a 5-star scale based on one’s daily interactions. Others can view your average rating and it has significant influence on your socioeconomic status and your treatment by others. The episode focuses on a woman named Lacie, a “low four” at 4.2, obsessed with reaching a 4.5 rating so she can receive a “social influencer” discount for a luxury apartment complex. After going to lengths to speak with a consultant about how to reach this status, she tries to get positive ratings from higher ranked people because they have greater influence on other people’s scores. She reaches out to her childhood friend Naomi over social media and after some back and forth, is invited to be the maid of honor at her wedding. Everything seems to be falling into place, but because this is Black Mirror and they can’t leave you feeling anything but devastated at the end, things start to fall apart rapidly. The results aren’t entirely unpredictable but produce some of the most genuinely cringe-worthy moments I’ve seen. I don’t need to give you a play-by-play of the entire episode, but I think you get my point of where this is going and how it pretty directly relates to last week’s presentation as well as some of the discussions in this class in general.
One of the major themes that this episode plays into is that we will go to any measure to gain social approval. While this has been a reality within societies throughout the ages, we are newly enabled to publicly and regularly share our opinions in an unprecedentedly tangible and quantifiable way. This has resulted in an increase in the power that we allot to social influence as well as an increase in social anxiety surrounding social media. We can see the societal impact of this when people talk about having FOMO when looking at friends’ snap-stories or saying things like “If you didn’t post a picture, were you actually even there?” That said, these more tongue-and-cheek examples are complemented with real, verifiable data, much like was demonstrated in Matt’s presentation, where a half-star decrease in Yelp ratings will result in a few percentages decrease in revenue. While it’s easier to justify this action of rating when it’s of a thing or a place and not of a person, in the case of Yelp, your negative rating, no matter how justified, has an impact on how the owner of that restaurant does financially.
Something I’ve learned in the process of writing this post, is that there are real apps that directly rate people. Netflix created the app from the episode Rate Me as a way to promote season three. While Rate Me was created as a joke, there was an application that was launched and quickly pulled called Peeple, with the sole purpose of allowing you to rate your peers and allow others to view your rating. It was described as ‘Yelp for humans’ and was removed online as it received a strong backlash. On a larger scale, there is a service called Sesame Credit, a credit-scoring service from Ant Financial, an Alibaba affiliate, that is backed by the Chinese government and employs a system of ‘carrots and sticks’ to reward and punish people for good behavior and breaking of rules, respectively. Wrongdoings include things like traffic violations and late bill payments and can have you entered onto a blacklist that has included 6.73 million people since 2013 and can result in “penalties on subsidies, career progression, and asset ownership.”
The thing that made this episode and phenomenon in general really stand out to me is how real it felt. I don’t consider myself to be particularly bothered by things on social media, but I am a 21 year old with an Instagram. I definitely do get excited when I get a like on a post or get tagged in a meme on Facebook because it’s the validation of knowing that I look good or that someone is thinking of me or any number of other positive things. The negative side of that is that you get your hopes up; even though that’s not at all something you should expect, you do, and the loneliness and downside that come from not getting the likes is even more real than the high of getting that attention. When you take this past the psychological, to a point where you get preferential treatment or denied a promotion based on your social ranking, it moves from merely unsettling to threateningly consequential.
Throughout this post I’ve really focused on the negatives and scary and depressing aspects of ratings systems, which may just be Black Mirror speaking through me. That said, ratings are, by nature, things that help us make better decisions and give us information before we commit, spend money, etc. There is a lot of good to be had from taking advantage of and contributing to these ratings systems. The reason that we’re so easily nervous about ratings is that we can see that we’re close to the line within our society as a whole, and if we cross it, we may be doing each other more harm than good.