Are Star Ratings Killing Uber and AirBnB?

TL;DR: star rating systems are silently killing the sharing economy because people hate being mean. Use a positive system instead.

I believe that the sharing economy is in trouble. First, let’s all admit to ourselves that the ecologically-minded, communal “sharing economy” hasn’t taken off at all.

What has taken off in the “sharing economy” are services like Uber and AirBnB. However, these services have turned out to be more like “resource sharing for privilidged people” than a revolution in the fundamentals of the economy or ownership.

I’ll admit it: I’m pretty damn privileged in my life and use both of these services often. In fact, I’m typing this blog post from an AirBnB rental in Paris. And, when we’re in San Francisco, we don’t own a car, so we end up using Uber a lot to get to places where Muni isn’t effective.

So, what’s the problem that puts both these services at risk? It’s that as they have grown, both have attracted “meh” quality providers that are not being detected by their rating systems. Star rating systems simply do not work when you have face to face interactions with individuals and are asked to rate them.

Every Uber ride I take I give either a 4 or 5 star rating, even if I was pretty “meh” about the ride. Maybe I’m just a sucker, but I don’t want to have someone lose their livelihood because I thought their car smelled and they got confused on where “Market Street” is. I met the person! How can I be part of what ruined them? Sure, they aren’t a great driver, but I don’t want to kick them. I just want to get where I’m going and feel good about myself.

Punative rating systems just simply don’t work at detecting “meh” when you have variable quality and face-to-face interactions. There are probably horrific Uber drivers and AirBnBs that get low ratings, but the slightly bad… they go unnoticed by the system.

Don’t believe me? Just go on the app Secret and look at all the people posting how much worse Uber drivers have gotten. It’s a litany of discontent about how severely the quality of drivers has dropped. Maybe these people all gave one stars, but I really think that I’m not the only one who hesitates to get someone in trouble.

Uber started with actual professional drivers, and that’s where it got its initial success. Bad drivers weren’t really a problem. But now they have mostly amateur drivers and I think their blind belief in rating systems is flawed. People hate giving bad feedback directly to people.

It’s why most people who have a “meh” meal at a restaurant don’t go write a review, they just don’t go back. You only leave a bad review when you are angry at a restaurant, not typically when you had a barely okay time.

In fact, we’re currently struggling with this feeling with the AirBnB we’re currently in. It’s slightly dirty, has a loud workshop nextdoor that wakes us up with banging on the wall, has a bathroom that is very hard to get to from the bedroom, and, above all, was pricey! But – we met the owner. He seems nice. The place is pretty large. The internet is fast. Plus, he keeps asking if everything is okay, and we don’t want to seem like complainers. He’s been really apologetic about the issues in the place, but hasn’t really done anything.

It makes us really anxious about what to do. We don’t want to write a bad review and look like angry, picky people. But… but… we are, apparently! The issue is that for most people, it’s against our nature to say bad things about people we just met. It stresses us out and makes us unhappy. So we find it far easier to say “everything’s fine” than “your house isn’t very nice.”

I think that this is a serious, serious issue for all these types of services. How do they find out about people who had a disatisfactory time, that isn’t eggregious enough to warrant feeling like you are insulting someone?

One approach would be to do what Netflix does. Netflix mostly ignores the star ratings and uses behavioral analysis to find out what people really like. I’m not exactly sure how you’d make that work with these two services, but luckily Data Scientists are paid an awful lot of money these days. It is science afterall.

My proposed solution to these kinds of issues is asking the user “Are you delighted?” with a “yes” or “no” along with a note that says this is for an optional excellence mark. That way, great experiences can get marks for being exceptional, and the not-so-great providers will become obvious for having no positive votes.

What I’m saying is that we shouldn’t fight the fact that people prefer to be nice by trying to get them to give bad reviews. We should instead build systems that allow users to volunteer positive feedback only. It’s less insulting, no one feels bad, and from that quality can be more honestly assessed.

Hampton headHampton Catlin is the creator of Sass, Haml, Tritium, and Wikipedia mobile. He’s one part back end developer, one part startup leader, and one part chaos monky. He’s also CEO of rarebit, which he co-founded with his husband. He speaks at a lot of conferences, writes a lot of code, and spends way too much time on Twitter at @hcatlin.