The stars have spoken

Head in the Cloud

Photo of Bianca Lee

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Get seated at the table. Crack open the menu. Check in on Yelp.

My methodical dining habits were unbreakable. During my freshman year at UC Berkeley, I chased after the title of Yelp Elite, a distinction awarded to Yelpers who are “making a difference” by flooding the app with reviews and photos.

Anyone who dined with me during my Yelp Elite phase knows that I used to rush to “check in” on the app within five minutes of entering the restaurant, assign a rating by the end of the meal and post an extensive review of my experience within 48 hours. My pursuit for the radiant red badge next to my profile name was a diligent one, and my motivations behind my unrelenting grind were constantly probed by my friends.

“So what do you get when you’re Yelp Elite?” they asked. “Don’t you think it’s a lot of work?”

“Bro … is it worth it?”

Hopelessly overtaken by this idée fixe, I’d justify my fervent labor with the invites to exclusive events promised to the Yelp Elite Squad, even though I never actually went to a single one. Despite not taking advantage of any perks, I still felt strangely gratified by the act of writing meticulous restaurant reviews on the internet. Dining out, an experience that was once supposed to be about simple enjoyment of my food, became a means to productively contribute to something. 

Quantifying my restaurant experiences disengaged me from my meals, yet I continued to zealously untangle the interconnected factors of ambiance, food and service to reduce them to a mere five stars. And the more I believed in the rating structure that I was contributing to, the more convincing other Yelpers’ reviews became. If other people didn’t have a four-star experience somewhere, how could I expect to enjoy dinner there? Ratings streamlined a frictionless restaurant discovery experience so that I didn’t need to scroll endlessly into the void to find a good place to eat.

But as I realized just how much influence strangers’ opinions were having on me, I came to see that a slew of other life experiences have become susceptible to the critical eye of ratings, reviews and recommendations too. More than just for food, we write reviews for trips, books, clothes, movies, appliances, doctor visits and employers in the name of improving everyone else’s experiences, and normalize checking other people’s ratings every time we try something new ourselves. 

By contributing to an app focused on star ratings, I simply spurred on the evolution of consumerism that places customer satisfaction in the limelight; by posting massive heaps of reviews online, I fanned the flames of this customer-based feedback cycle in which every experience becomes a consumer experience. 

It’s natural to want to purchase the highest-quality item or dine at the finest restaurants. But it becomes unsettling when the rating system begins to interfere with our sense of individualism and creates the illusion that there is a “right” purchase. In attempts to attain the “ideal” life, we unknowingly allow ratings to push us all to buy the same cars, watch the same movies and eat at the same restaurants. 

Begrudgingly, I admit that I find myself succumbing to the stylistic hegemony of software engineers decked out in Patagonias and Allbirds on their commutes to work in San Francisco, and swept up by the stereotypical tech desk setup with the same ergonomic swivel chairs and Amazon bestselling desktop monitors.

Accessibility to rating platforms may have been intended to allow us to express our original thoughts, yet irony lies in the fact that our lifestyles seem to be converging into a singular hegemonic one. What was supposed to enhance our individualism is killing it instead.

In my pursuit for “the best,” I found myself seduced by the rhetoric of convenience, forgetting the fulfillment in authentically discovering something new on my own. To avoid the uncertainty and laboriousness of personally curating my own favorites, our world of instant gratification pushed me to opt for low-risk generic paragons of excellence instead.

The thing is, most of my favorite things actually can’t be found on top-rated lists. My favorite Chinese restaurant back home, whose owner still remembers my family from when I was four years old, will never make it onto the same rankings as Nobu or Mastro’s Steakhouse. My most worn hoodie from a gift shop in Alaska is most definitely not cut from the same cloth as those sold by Everlane or The North Face. 

What I realized is that online rating systems aren’t equipped to account for complexities such as nostalgia, cultural authenticity and personal preference — and solely adhering to curated lists and affiliate links with predetermined utility means potentially missing out on hidden gems that become special for personal reasons.

Rating systems shouldn’t handicap our individualism nor should a system that simultaneously magnifies and diminishes our opinions overpower my decision-making process. Especially amid tech’s amplification of what everyone else has to say, I’ve found that turning off the noise is nice for a change.

Bianca Lee writes the Thursday column on the intersection of technology and society.