Friday, December 15, 2023

Rate and Review

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, December 16, 2023

David, we’d like to hear from you. How did we go? Please take a moment to share your experience. On a scale of 0 (not at all) to 10 (extremely) how likely are you to recommend us to your family, friends and colleagues? 

How annoying is the internet’s insatiable lust for feedback? I ask this rhetorically. I’m not inviting you to answer on a scale of 1 (mildly irritating) to 10 (a clear sign that our civilisation is going down the tubes). There’s not much you can do these days, from going to the doctor to buying a whipper snipper, that you won’t be asked to rate and review afterwards. And if you get the whipper snipper delivered, expect a separate email from Australia Post inviting you to rate and review your “delivery experience.”

Even as a professional critic, I find it tricky to compose a telling review of a postal delivery. Don’t get me wrong, I like my postie, and I like it when she puts a parcel on my doorstep. But exactly how many stars out of 10 should I give her for doing that? 

Anything less than a 10 would imply, falsely and harshly, that she could somehow have delivered the parcel better. But if the accurate placement of a package on a doorstep rates a 10, what would a 4 be? Leaving the package a metre shy of the porch, partly concealed in a hedge? And what ungodly act of postal dereliction would warrant a 1? 

Also, I hate to break this to the marketing people at Australia Post, but even if I feel that a given letter or parcel has been delivered impeccably, that doesn’t mean I will be urging my “family and friends” to get things mailed to them too. The topic of postal efficiency rarely crops up in my day-to-day conversations, and I don’t want to be the guy who keeps raising it.

Recently, I bought some Old Spice deodorant from a prominent online retailer. I would hesitate to call this an “experience,” let alone an experience I want to commemorate or “share”. But if you saw my email Inbox, you’d think my whole life revolved around armpit hygiene. Was the deodorant as described? Did it arrive promptly? David, we’re still awaiting your feedback on the Old Spice experience. Based on your recent purchases, we have a recommendation for you: more Old Spice! 

When I buy something, that generally means I like it. If the item is not as described – if it’s a box of nails instead of a stick of deodorant – the vendor can safely assume they’ll be hearing from me. Otherwise, paying for something and then getting it doesn’t strike me as an experience that calls for comment or celebration. Even in kindergarten, you had to do something a bit more spectacular than that to earn five gold stars. 

Anyway, the giving of the stars is just the beginning, in the field of online criticism. Next you’ll be asked to describe “your most important reasons” for giving that many stars. Suddenly you have to come up with an original work of prose: 150 words, for free, on the merits of a bag of dried orange peel. 

A few weeks ago I went to the football. The next day I got an email grilling me about every conceivable aspect of my game-day experience, including the half-time promotions. On a scale of 1 to 7, how “satisfied” was I with the experience of watching a couple of random contestants from the crowd trying to catch bombs in a giant novelty KFC bucket? 

I was also (and I’m not making this up) invited to rate the “spirit and desire to win” of the home team, and the level of “enthusiasm and elation when tries were scored.” Here I sternly selected the “prefer not to answer” option. I like player elation as much as the next person, but I want it to be organic. I don’t want footballers getting hauled over the coals because I’ve given them 1 out of 7 for enthusiasm. 

I want my views to matter, but I don’t want them to matter that much. Some things can’t be quantified on a numerical scale – things like team spirit, and the smell of Old Spice, and watching a sunset with a friend, family member or colleague. Prefer not to answer? It’s more that I would prefer not to be asked in the first place.