From dat­ing web­sites to ride share apps, cus­tomers are be­ing sur­rep­ti­tiously rated and ranked. But, asks Cassie Lane, is this scru­tiny turn­ing us into a so­ci­ety of im­po­tent peo­ple pleasers?

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I was run­ning late for a din­ner party when I got into the Uber. “You know,” the driver said, after 10 min­utes of si­lence. “You have the worst rat­ing I have ever seen.” I sulked in the back seat for the rest of the trip, prob­a­bly mak­ing my ter­ri­ble Uber rat­ing even worse.

I men­tioned this in­ci­dent at din­ner. My friend flaunted his five-star rat­ing and in­sisted on com­par­ing it with every­one there. The group agreed that, in fu­ture, I should go out of my way to in­gra­ti­ate my­self to driv­ers. I re­fused, say­ing that liv­ing in a democ­racy meant I was free to choose who I was and wasn’t nice to.

Lucky I don’t live in China. By con­trast, our north­ern neigh­bour will soon be in­tro­duc­ing a so­cial credit sys­tem where the be­hav­iour of all cit­i­zens will be mon­i­tored and ranked. Ac­cord­ing to Busi­ness In­sider, bad be­hav­iour might in­clude friv­o­lous spend­ing and buy­ing too many video games. Pun­ish­ment for a bad rat­ing could en­tail be­ing pro­hib­ited from pur­chas­ing flights or get­ting a loan, or a job. It could even re­sult in pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion.

The re­sponse in the West has been crit­i­cal.

La­bels such as “dystopian” have been thrown around by jour­nal­ists due to its echoes of 1984. Yet, with on­line rat­ings be­com­ing more preva­lent, could Aus­tralians be fol­low­ing a sim­i­lar path, al­beit less con­sciously?

Hu­mans will do just about any­thing to be liked. As seen with so­cial me­dia, when given the choice we of­ten por­tray ide­al­is­tic ver­sions of our lives to the pub­lic. This em­bel­lished de­pic­tion is then used as a stan­dard against which oth­ers com­pare them­selves, thereby gen­er­at­ing wide­spread dis­con­tent. A 2017 study linked so­cial me­dia use to low self-es­teem, psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tress and even sui­ci­dal ideation.

The ef­fects of so­cial me­dia are slowly mi­grat­ing into our off­line lives. If we con­tinue at this rate, we’re in dan­ger of reach­ing a point where no­body feels com­fort­able re­veal­ing their true emo­tions for fear of be­ing so­cially ex­iled. Think this sounds Or­wellian? It’s al­ready hap­pen­ing.

Peeple, a peo­ple-rat­ing app, launched in Amer­ica in 2015 gen­er­at­ing world­wide crit­i­cism and con­tro­versy. The Wash­ing­ton Post dubbed it “the ter­ri­fy­ing Yelp for peo­ple”. When Peeple failed, its col­lapse was met with col­lec­tive re­lief. But one glance at the re­views re­veals there were plenty of users ea­ger to get on board if it weren’t for the tech­ni­cal glitches.

Fif­teen years ago, peo­ple thought so­cial me­dia was in­va­sive and ex­clu­sively for youths, that shar­ing on­line with no spe­cific in­ten­tion was at­ten­tion-seek­ing and in­ter­net dat­ing was for creeps. Now, in­flu­encers run the world, your mum is post­ing pho­tos of her break­fast on Face­book, more than 300 mil­lion peo­ple share videos of their lives daily and about 4.5 mil­lion Aus­tralians are look­ing for love – or maybe just lust – on­line.

What if the rea­son peo­ple-rat­ing apps haven’t taken off is less to do with morals and more to do with tim­ing? Like the boil­ing frog fa­ble, when things are in­tro­duced in­cre­men­tally, peo­ple tend to be more ac­qui­es­cent to change.

And the heat may al­ready be ris­ing. Do I Date, a Bri­tish on­line dat­ing app launched glob­ally in Fe­bru­ary, is gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity in Aus­tralia. Mem­bers can rate their dates out of five and leave a re­view. All you need is a per­son’s phone num­ber, whether they have a pro­file or not.

Terry Ams­bury and James Forsyth founded the app fol­low­ing a pub ses­sion with friends. “Our friends were com­plain­ing about be­ing bom­barded with dick pics,” James tells me. “We couldn’t be­lieve there were no real con­se­quences for that sort of be­hav­iour.”

Asked if some­one can get a neg­a­tive rat­ing re­moved, Terry replies, “We have codes of con­duct. At the same time, every­one is free to their opin­ion. You have to al­low some stuff to stay.”

“It’s great for trans­parency and an op­por­tu­nity for peo­ple to warn oth­ers when they en­counter some­one who is dan­ger­ous,” James adds.

Even if Do I Date suc­ceeds in cre­at­ing an en­vi­ron­ment in which con­struc­tive feed­back can be shared diplo­mat­i­cally, it may pave the way for com­pet­ing apps that may not have such be­nign in­ten­tions.

Most crit­ics of peo­ple-rat­ing apps are con­cerned about the po­ten­tial for cy­ber­bul­ly­ing. As John Oliver said in re­sponse to Peeple: “The in­ter­net es­sen­tially ex­ists so peo­ple can say vi­cious things about each other, and we don’t need an­other app to fa­cil­i­tate that.”

But pos­i­tive re­views may also have po­ten­tial for harm. Car­rie (not her real name) is an at­trac­tive 40-yearold com­mer­cial lawyer who used the dat­ing site RSVP many years ago. The site’s home page dis­plays its top 100 mem­bers.

On RSVP, mem­bers must pay to mes­sage a love in­ter­est and, ex­plains Car­rie, “to get into the top 100 you had to have the high­est num­ber of peo­ple pay­ing to con­tact you”.

“I was picky at the start,” she says. “But my friend ac­cepted ev­ery re­quest and got into the top 100 quickly. The men who con­tacted her were way hot­ter than the guys con­tact­ing me.” Car­rie low­ers her eyes. “I feel bad, think­ing about it. I led so many men on so they’d pay to con­tact me. I lit­er­ally cut and pasted re­sponses un­til I got into the top 100.”

Would Car­rie have done the same thing if, rather than on­line mes­sag­ing, she’d had to go on a date with these men to get into the top 100?

“I’d like to say I wouldn’t,” she says sheep­ishly. “But, I mean, I made those poor guys pay when I had no in­ten­tion of ever dat­ing them, so who knows?”

If you think you’d never use an app that rates you, think again. If you’re on the “so­cial search” app Tin­der, you al­ready have. Tin­der de­vel­oped a for­mula that cal­cu­lates a mem­ber’s de­sir­abil­ity through what they call an Elo score. They use it as a match­ing al­go­rithm, but google “Elo score” and you’ll find a trea­sure trove of sites of­fer­ing tips to in­crease your de­sir­abil­ity, es­sen­tially gam­ing the sys­tem like Car­rie did, to up­grade your lovein­ter­est se­lec­tion.

If Do I Date takes off, and other on­line dat­ing sites fol­low, rat­ings could be­come so ubiq­ui­tous that a date’s re­view could make the dif­fer­ence be­tween find­ing your dream part­ner and spend­ing the week­end alone watch­ing a sea­son of The So­pra­nos.

Would this de­vel­op­ment then cre­ate the right con­di­tions for peo­ple-rat­ing apps to flour­ish?

Imag­ine a world where ev­ery con­ver­sa­tion you had could be rated pub­licly. Ac­cord­ing to a health psy­chol­o­gist from The Mind Room in Mel­bourne, Dr Lau­ren Hamil­ton, this could cause se­ri­ous psy­cho­log­i­cal dam­age.

“If you don’t feel com­fort­able be­ing your­self, re­la­tion­ships stay in what we call a weak bond zone,” Hamil­ton ex­plains. “We don’t get the ben­e­fits of so­cial con­nec­tion if we’re not be­ing au­then­tic. Peo­ple might start to feel anx­ious in so­cial sit­u­a­tions, so they avoid them. Then they feel lonely, which quickly leads to de­pres­sion.

“We’re wired to be so­cial an­i­mals. Stud­ies show be­ing re­jected has the same ef­fect on the brain as be­ing phys­i­cally tor­tured. It’s in­cred­i­bly painful.”

And due to rat­ing apps I too know the phys­i­cal – if not psy­cho­log­i­cal – pain of be­ing judged in the cy­ber world. I was be­ing pun­ished for my ter­ri­ble Uber rat­ing. While my friends would get an Uber in­stantly, I had to wait ages for a driver. A missed flight, after three Ubers can­celled on me con­sec­u­tively, was my rock bot­tom. I de­cided I needed to find out di­rect from a driver what was go­ing on.

“I wouldn’t pick any­one up who had less than four stars un­less I was in a de­serted area and there was no­body else avail­able,” Uber driver Ab­dul tells me. “Even then I’d wait for a bet­ter op­tion.” (I gave Ab­dul five stars, in case you’re won­der­ing.)

I could only as­sume my bad rat­ing was due to an early ex­pe­ri­ence with a sleazy driver, which re­sulted in a re­luc­tance to be friendly. And so, hand forced, I ca­pit­u­lated. I of­fered sweets to driv­ers, be­came talkative and laughed loudly at their (of­ten un­funny) jokes. When my rat­ing climbed to 4.9 stars, I was thrilled. I be­came ob­sessed with get­ting five stars. With my re­cal­i­brated rat­ing, Ubers were boun­ti­ful, even dur­ing peak times. I felt like the belle of the Uber ball.

Re­cently, bask­ing in the glow of my five-star rep­u­ta­tion, I was sit­ting in the back of an Uber, glad that my trou­bles were be­hind me. Then the driver parked the car and turned to me. After glanc­ing at my cleavage, he said, “You know, you should smile. Girls are much more at­trac­tive when they smile.”

Look­ing squarely at the driver, I pushed the rage back down into my stom­ach, forced a smile and said,

“Thank you.”

CASSIE LANE is a free­lance writer based in Mel­bourne. Her mem­oir, How to Dress a Dummy, was pub­lished last year.

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