Sunday, April 4, 2010

How Many Votes

...I've been studying this for a long time. Since long before the days of Facebook, I've been interested in the effects of consumer/community ratings of products and services. Voting systems for online content have always been a source of fascination for me. So I have a few opinions about how online voting should work.

I've long been a consumer myself of the opinions presented by industry analysts, and have even seriously considered a post as one of those "experts" myself. But it's always been more interesting to me to have access to the aggregate information provided by the real people who use products in real world situations outside the lab.

So when I had a chance to participate in the community rating system at Perl Monks, I thought I'd seen something pretty close to the gold standard. The system (created from software called "Everything") allows community members to rate the individual information nodes and even incents them to do so. Members are "paid" to provide ratings by elevations in status. As they rate more content, their own status increases, as their own information blips are rated highly, their stature also improves.

Although there are ways to game the system on a small scale, when the aggregate effect of ratings by a significant portion of the community are applied, the cheap tricks are washed out in the tide.

This is similar to the systems used at Slashdot and Ebay.

So when Facebook emerged with its little "Like" link, I thought that it was a good start. I figured that when they "got the memo" they would add a little more sophisticated mechanism for system users to interact with the content. At the very least, I thought they would respond to the oft requested addition of an "Unlike" or "Dislike" link. My preference would be that they give us three levels of "like" and three levels of "dislike." Doesn't seem like any help is coming on this front though.

For as long as I can remember, YouTube has allowed viewers to rate content with up to five stars. And to combat the concerns about variance in people's interpretation of the various possible rating levels, they even provided a legend for each setting (such as "Cool" and "Worth Watching") to nudge things into some semblence of consistency.

Now with the new design at YouTube (released on Apr 1st, not a great day for your rollout), there is now only an up and down thumb for the videos. I think it's a step backward. First of all, when folks have an accumulated rating score from hundreds or thousands of viewers, the record is lost.

Frankly I care more about Facebook ratings than those on YouTube. Given the (at least until now) barrier to participation at YouTube (in other words, you have to make a watchable video and upload it), the number of "players" affected is larger at Facebook.

But where I really want to see some advancement in the art of ratings is at Hulu. This is what affects me the most.

You see, it's possible on Hulu to rate the ads that they show during the program. THIS is what I've been waiting for. If they're actually using the information as a way to tune what they display as I watch, my viewing experience can only improve as I provide ratings.

Right now, I can only provide a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" as a response to an ad, but I am definitely moved to provide that feedback often. In fact, every single time I see that Verizon commercial where they re-purpose the Big Red music from the old gum ads, I stop everything until I can give a Thumbs Down. If they allowed me to express 3 times the displeasure, I'd do that.

But more than that, I think that the valuable addition to the system would be the ability for me to express displeasure or approval in three key areas. I'd like the ability to give a rating to the ad itself, the product, and the saturation rate.

Sometimes there are ads that I love even though I'm not a fan of the product (Anheuser Busch evokes this response in me frequently), sometimes I like the product but not the ad, and frequently I like the ad but I'm tired of seeing it. (That Geico high-fiving chipmunks commercial meets this test.)

I absolutely love the progressive practices for delivery of online ads intermixed with streamed content that they are using at Hulu. I just wish for them to advance the art by giving us more ways to provide useful input to them about the ads. Some would say that consumers will simply rate all of the ads downward and that may happen in a lot of cases.

But I say two things will happen. First, ads that bubble to the top will be the "least hated" in a sea of Thumbs Down ratings. Second, there will be thoughtful consumers who will use the system to provide info about what we really do like.

Speaking for myself, I don't hate ads implicitly or the fact that businesses want to advertise to me. I actually want people to tell me when they have something great that I'd want to buy. I roll my eyes at the single-celled organism thinking that Hates on any sort of ad whatsoever. But there ARE obnoxious practices in the advertising business and I want to use the cumulative voice of the consumer to reward the businesses that shun those.

So go for it Hulu! Invite us to tell you what we really think of your ads, and if you can see your way clear to do it, let us tell you why.

No matter what, thanks for allowing us to see programming that we really want in a fashion we really want.