title for Score Sites note
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section heading icon     overview

This note considers 'score sites' (aka rating sites or personal polling sites) - fora that encourage visitors to generate an online rating for individuals and organisations that have previously encountered (eg a teacher) or someone who is stranger (eg a woman on the basis of her photo). Many sites operate on a commercial basis.

Most scoring is pseudonymous, something that has encouraged ratings - and accompanying comments - that are malevolent, even defamatory.

The note covers -

  • this overview - the basis of the sites, uptake by consumers, and controversy
  • products - UGC assessments of businesses, institutions and products
  • personnel - scoring teachers, police and other personnel
  • people - scoring people unknown to the scorer
  • regulation - the shape of regulation, defamation and salient studies

It complements discussion elsewhere regarding consumer activism, reputation, social spaces, dating sites and gripe sites.

subsection heading icon     introduction

People have been individually or collectively ranking their peers since the beginning of recorded history.

from ancient Rome and Egypt for example praises some figures for their beauty and damns others for their corruption or promiscuity, a precursor of scribbling on toilet walls and seedier parts of the net. Enthusiasts and entrepreneurs in Restoration England published collective scores on the most beautiful women in London, the fastest horse, and in an era of sermon-shopping, the most exciting preacher or the cleric most likely to put you to sleep. Hallie Rubenhold's The Covent Garden Ladies: Pimp General Jack and the Extraordinary Story of Harris' List (Stroud: Tempus 2005) describes Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies, published from 1757 to 1795.

That scoring - which sometimes featured the 'star' symbol (one star good, five stars better) with which many people are familiar - reflected the emergence of a statistical consciousness, exploration of possibilities in publishing and constants such as crowd behaviour.

The late-1990s saw emulation of online review sites, in which audiences were encouraged to post a comment or click a button to register endorsement or non-support of a reviewer's assessment of a film, music recording, television show or even theatrical performance. Those sites were hailed as a vibrant demonstration of UGC and as rescuing criticism from the cold dead hands (or keyboards) of professional reviewers.

Their development was accompanied by the emergence of gripe sites, online fora established by consumer advocates or merely by cranks as a way of expressing unhappiness with poor performance on the part of businesses, government agencies and other organisations.

Those publishing mechanisms have provided a model for the creation of what have variously been labelled as 'score', 'personal rating' or 'ranking' sites which allow members of the public to -

  • assign a 'score' to an individual, including individuals with whom the person has had no contact (eg rating the "hottest babes" on the basis of photos copied from another web site)
  • make a comment on that individual
  • assign a score to or make a comment on a business organisation or a professional.

Information published on some sites is available without restriction. On other sites access involves membership of a 'community' - something that may be as simple as providing the site operator with a name and/or email address (neither of which are necessarily real or verified) or be associated with a commercial subscription.

Participation in such sites is often pseudonymous. As a result score sites have attracted criticism as fora -

  • in which spiteful and even defamatory comments are made about teachers, officials, peers and other figures
  • where such comments can be seen by a global audience (and may be accessible into the future because of caching by search engines and copying by online archives)
  • whose operators are commercialising misery and abetting online bullying
  • of dubious value as a consumer protection mechanism, because praise or condemnation may be wholly false or merely unrepresentative.

subsection heading icon     who is being rated?

Development of rating sites reflects perceptions of demand and emulation, with developers being influenced by what their peers are doing (or what is getting media coverage) and what they think will secure traffic.

There have thus been sites that score -

  • junior and secondary schools and their teachers
  • universities and their academics
  • lawyers and law firms
  • doctors, medical practices and hospitals
  • veterinarians
  • plumbers, auto electricians, carpenters and other trades
  • restaurants
  • hotels
  • camps
  • retailers
  • childcare services
  • real estate agents
  • used-car sales and insurance salespeople
  • past or potential partners (eg "research & rate B4U Date!")

subsection heading icon     who is doing the rating?

Who visits rating sites and what do they do?

Information about who visits such sites, what they do (post or merely gawk), whether they re-visit (particularly revisit on a frequent basis) and whether they are influenced by what they encounter is sketchy.

Some sites are reported to have substantial traffic; ratemyteachers.com for example was claimed to be receiving around 147,000 unique visitors per month as of early 2006. Others appear to be securing little traffic overall.

Much traffic appears to be concentrated on particular locations (eg teachers for a specific school or tradespeople in a specific town). That is reflected in the shape of ratings and postings, with some targets getting most of the attention and others - for example in business sites such as the US Angie's List remaining as templates without a score for attributes such as 'quality', courtesy', 'timeliness' and 'price'.

Scale can be significant. As of late 2006 the UK ratemyteachers site reportedly featured 454,000 "ratings" for 95,000 teachers at over 5,600 schools.

subsection heading icon     commerce

How do score sites make money?

One response is that some of them don't, with a failure to generate traffic being reflected in an early demise.

Some sites have based their business model on subscriptions (with consumers paying for access to the site or for a 'premium' access to information about local tradespeople and professionals). That model is often supplemented by revenue from advertising and essentially reflects traditional offline publishing of directories such as the Michelin Guide Bleu or Zagat restaurant guide. It may also be supplemented by discount voucher or other referral schemes involving payment to the site operator by businesses that appear on the site and have gained work through a positive rating.

Other sites appear to rely on two sources of revenue. The first is advertising (fans and opponents of 'rate my' sites often grizzle that they are overwhelmed by ads throughout the site. Another source is sale of participant information to third parties, eg for the delivery of spam. That is one reason why such sites often ask for the user's gender, age and email address (and why the savvier participants offer a spoof age and a throwaway webmail address).

Site operators seek to exploit the economics of user generated content (UGC), with low investment in staff (some of the for-profit sites rely on volunteers) for consistently monitoring offensive comments and responding to reader complaints.

subsection heading icon     controversy

Rating sites, in particular those allowing anonymous assessment and comment on K12 teachers, have proved to be controversial.

Controversy partly reflects community ambivalence about pseudonymous criticism and gawking ("where players get played and psychos get spayed") or disquiet about "making money by providing kids with an electronic lavatory wall". It also reflect disagreement about legal issues, explored in the following page of this note.

Proponents have argued that sites such as playersandpsychos, dontdatehimgirl and datingpsychos are a natural and valuable complement to dating sites. That notion has been embraced by site operators, one of which claims to offer

a searchable database that allows you to uncover anyone's dating history and make sure they're not a player or a psycho! Save yourself heartbreaks and headaches before they happen by getting the scoop from ex's that found out the hard way.

Already fallen victim to a cheater, liar, gold digger or nutcase? Then save others from the same suffering (And start your revenge!) by posting that crazy woman or cheating man on playersandpsychos.com.

Critics have responded that the 'psycho' might be the one doing the posting, with enthusiasts assigning a digital scarlet letter.

Site promoters typically claim

Our free websites let users post anonymous ratings and comments, and see the public comments posted by others, in order to make informed decisions. The site is also a useful scorecard for business owners, who can find out what their customers are really thinking!

and in an expression of digital populism explain

Who are you and why do you have this site?
We are just common, ordinary people who believe that the customers have a right to voice their opinions.

Critics argue that ratings can be so unfounded as to be meaningless, particularly on sites where pseudonymity encourages both bad behaviour by opponents of a person/business and subversion of the system with targets posting positive comments about themselves in the guise of another party.

Teachers in Australia, Canada and the UK have called on governments to ban the sites, arguing that they encourage defamation and cyber-bullying. Governments have typically responded by endorsing filtering of the sites at the school level (ie schools block student access on school networks) but have not sought to shutter the sites altogether.

That caution has reflected claims that operators are immunised from defamation or other action, as conduits rather than authors. It has reflected expectations that individuals rather than governments should take action if defamed or threatened and that more broadly the sites lack sufficient credibility to be taken seriously. It has also reflected naive acceptance of assertions that offshore sites are wholly beyond the reach of Australian litigants and governments.

Operators have sought to both sell the cake and eat it, with one for example asking

Are the ratings statistically valid?
Not really. They are a listing of opinions and should be judged as such. However, we often receive emails stating that the ratings are uncannily accurate, especially for businesses with over 100 ratings.

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