My existential spiral began with Uber. It recently made its passenger ratings more easily accessible. Naturally, I, a validation-seeking missile, couldn’t help myself. I opened the app, clicked the three bars in the corner, and voilà: 4.74. Which, out of 5, should be pretty good! But considering I’ve taken more than 320 rides, this meant I’d received more than my fair share of 4s – maybe even a few 3s. I’ve never made a driver wait (that long) or slammed a door (that hard). I wasn’t a 4-out-of-5 human. I tried to shake this dark cloud hanging over me, judging me, but I couldn’t. I decided I would prove Uber’s algorithm had made a mistake (which it obviously had) by tracking down other (much more reliable) forms of affirmation.
Originally printed in the Vogue Arabia Man Fall/Winter 2018 issue.
They weren’t hard to find. Now ubiquitous, ratings were adopted to solve stranger danger in the era of the share economy – without them you would never get into a random person’s car. Everywhere we go, our value is reflected back at us. When you crash at an Airbnb, you get reviewed; some workouts shame your quads with a public scoreboard; you even have a “desirability score” on Tinder (which it wouldn’t tell me, no matter how many times I emailed). Then I started wondering, what if I wanted a macro rating? Knowing that I was a good backseat rider or house guest was nice. But there was no way – yet – to find a generalized numerical assessment of my value as a living, breathing biped. The solution? A Google survey, obviously.
I created 11 categories – including “Kindness” and “How Likely Are You to Recommend This Product (Me) to a Friend?” – to be rated from 1 to 10. I tacked on a write-in question at the end, “What’s one thing about me that drives you nuts?” I emailed it to nearly 40 of my closest friends and relatives – and a few ex-girlfriends, for objectivity’s sake. Then I waited.
I totally wasn’t anxious. I mean, what really was I going to find out? I’m one of the best people I know. If you could get past the fact that I was sending out a Google Form to ex-girlfriends because of a less-than-perfect Uber rating, you’d see it, too: I’m great. I’m balanced. I’m normal. At least as normal as you can be these days, since we’re already basically living in a Black Mirror episode. You know, the one with Bryce Dallas Howard, where every interaction between smartphone-armed humans results in a 1-to-5 rating and your overall score determines what kind of car you’re allowed to rent or what plane you can take. In China, some citizens have opted into just such a social-credit system. Those with a high enough score can skip security at the Beijing airport. Which is a very totalitarian version of pre-flight safety check.
There is at least one person eagerly awaiting the rating-economy future: Julia Cordray. Her app, Peeple, originally launched in March 2016 and was panned as the “Yelp for People.” Taken down in 2017, it’s relaunching this year, and it wants to be the platform responsible for putting a number on our reputations.
“Millennials don’t have the dreams our parents had,” she tells me. “They want to be mobile, to use Airbnb and share their cars and their bikes and their toasters and their campers and their houses. In order to do that, they have to have a reputation.” Personally, I don’t want to share my toaster. But if I have to, I’d like to be known as the LeBron James of toaster sharing. Thankfully, we haven’t quite reached the era of communal appliances. But maybe the surveys could give me some idea of how I might fare in that dystopian future. They’d started coming in and – surprise! – were causing some anxiety and confusion on my end. One person gave me all 10s and wrote that the thing about me that drove him or her nuts was “honestly, that you’re not here with me right now!” Was that a new girlfriend… or my mom? Someone else said my “lack of self-love” was my most annoying trait; another wrote “You’re cocky.” (Those two should meet.) The last comment was “Don’t think so much,” which was a funny thing to read as I began furiously trying to figure out which of my “friends” gave me a 1 on “Emotional Stability” (honestly: not wrong). It reminded me of something I’d heard from Paolo Parigi, a Stanford professor who has worked for Airbnb and Uber studying the effects of technology. In a world where your reputation is constantly on trial, everyone around you becomes a virtual judge or – if the ratings are anonymous – a spy. In order to participate in this system, you’ve got to expose yourself to constant surveillance. Which is great, because if there’s one thing an emotionally unstable person like me loves, it’s feeling like he’s naked and being watched. In the end, 32 people filled out the form, giving me a composite score of… 7.88. Which, damn. In our reputation-dependent future, who would share their toaster with me? I’d be relegated to eating frozen waffles, thinking about how I was rated more highly as an Uber rider than I was as a friend. My initial response was insecurity – which then manifested as defensiveness, just like when I first saw my Uber rating. But once I got past the blows to my ego, the criticism, though it stung, was actually pretty useful. I tried to get out of my head and into the world, to stop being so self-absorbed.
“All of us can relate to regret, to times when we didn’t do our best,” Cordray says. “But overall, if we take a good hard look at ourselves, feedback is always good; feedback helps us grow.”
She’s not wrong. But what made my survey, absurd as it was, genuinely effective was that the answers came from people who actually have a decent understanding of who I am. In the share economy, a rating is determined mostly by strangers, which can create something of a hostage situation. One Uber driver told me that he and his riders don’t talk. Because why take the chance of saying the wrong thing and messing up your perfect rating?
As the world of peer-to-peer rating grows and our reputation increasingly becomes our currency, I worry that we’ll enter a new era in which empty niceties and brutal judgments reign – and where any annoyed person can torpedo your social value. But if the future consists of walking on digital eggshells, maybe the guard against that is to be more vulnerable with the people we do know. The benefits of opening ourselves up to criticism could offset the very ways in which technology is making us more superficial. I’d like to think that if this survey did anything – outside of improving my therapist’s job security – it helped me be a better human, even if just marginally so.
And OK, you probably shouldn’t send out a survey asking your friends to rate you. But maybe at least ask them what you do that drives them crazy or how you could be better. It’s probably a coincidence, but after the survey my Uber rating went up to 4.75. I have no idea how or why – or who gave me the five-star rating that made the jump. And I think that’s probably for the best.
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