March 27, 2011

The Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down Dilemma: When Hate Means Love or Love Means Hate

Greetings. Love and Hate are unarguably among the most basic of human emotions, largely primal forces that guide our lives both consciously and likely unconsciously as well.

Judging from the dictionary definitions alone one would assume that these two sentiments are always polar opposites, "never the twain shall meet."

And for most of us when young at least, when the world seems painted in sharp "good vs. evil" black and white images, love and hate seem to be deceptively simple concepts.

But as we age, and experience the world in more of its complexity, the sometimes distressing truth emerges. The lines between hate and love -- emotional, spiritual, and physical -- are often blurry and indistinct, and sometimes entirely contradictory.

Like the psychotic character of Harry Powell from the terrifying 1955 film masterpiece The Night of the Hunter -- with LOVE and HATE tattooed on the knuckles of his right and left hands respectively -- the words alone do not provide dependable clues to our true thoughts and beliefs.

Yet the "social" aspects of the Web have increasingly been defined in terms of "binary" ratings: Like or Dislike - Love or Hate - Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down.

Such ratings, on videos, postings, comments, and myriad other Internet items, are not necessarily inconsequential. The resulting rankings and scores can affect visibility, monetization, and other aspects potentially important to both posters and viewers alike.

When YouTube discovered that most video rankings tended to bunch around the very "bottom" and "top" of their star-based rating system, that system was replaced with a simple thumbs up vs. thumbs down mechanism instead, further encouraging "binary" thinking in this regard. This change wasn't necessarily positive or negative in and of itself -- but to view it as a minor alteration would be a mistake, since constraints on choices inevitably -- and by definition -- have an impact on the choices that people will make.

Perhaps of even greater concern, it isn't always even clear as to exactly what an individual rating is actually referring to.

In Google Buzz (which I use heavily and consider to be an invaluable venue), you can "Like" a posting -- but not the later individual comments that become part of any given posting's discussion thread.

This frequently creates a dilemma when controversial topics are under discussion. If you agree with a particular comment, but perhaps not with other comments or the original posting, is it appropriate to "Like" the posting itself?

In practice, what tends to happen is that users will try to explain the specifics of their feelings regarding particular comments rather than use the ranking system itself, but this is not a substitute for ranking signals that actually affect totals such as "10 people liked this ..." In essence, if you don't use the formal "Like" or "Reshare" systems, your opinion can't enter the calculus per se.

A different aspect of these dilemmas is also apparent on YouTube. When rating a video -- thumbs up or thumbs down -- are you rating the "value" of the video itself, or are you expressing agreement (disagreement?) with the actual content of the video?

The same sort of concern can arise when rating other materials as well. I'll bet you've had the experience of seeing a posting containing some content with which you strongly disagreed, but that you considered to be a posting that more people should be exposed to -- as a negative example if nothing else.

So you hover over the "Like" or "Thumbs Up" button and say to yourself -- are people going to think I'm agreeing with what this nut is proclaiming, or will they understand that I just think that the item itself is important to view?

And perhaps you decide that rather than risk that confusion, you won't rate the item at all. Or you vote down the item to indicate your disagreement with the content, even though (or perhaps not realizing) that this may create a signal that actually tends to depress the rank of the item, making it less likely to be seen by others -- perhaps the exact opposite of your desired intention.

I've seen what appear to be exactly these scenarios with some of the material I've posted on YouTube. Upsetting but important content tends to be voted down, even as the associated comments' texts indicate how viewers feel that the video is important to see! YouTube does provide the capability for viewers to Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down individual comments -- which is extremely useful, but is dependent on the presence of comments in the first place for these additional signals.

While I've primarily used specific examples related to Google above, that's merely due to those services' wide visibility. In reality, the sorts of rating conflicts I've described are endemic across the Web, and have become very much "standard operating procedure" regardless of vendor.

And while it's understandable why such ranking dilemmas exist, they do seem to suggest that the binary Up/Down rating paradigm is fundamentally too limiting, and that it is sometimes skewing potential ranking signals in ways that may be exactly the opposite of many users' actual sensibilities regarding associated materials.

How to best improve this situation is definitely not obvious. It could be argued that the expansion of existing "Reshare" mechanisms could well serve -- by emphasizing users' indications that specific items are worthy of being more widely seen regardless of agreement or disagreement with the content itself. But Resharing tends to be a public activity where the party doing the sharing is identified in some manner, and many users are likely to be concerned that sharing still suggests agreement to one degree or another.

Certainly it would almost always be useful for users to be able to rate comments as well as original postings in all venues where ratings are available. Such capabilities are already present in a number of popular Web platforms, including YouTube as noted above.

More fundamentally, being able to individually specify whether one values a particular posting itself, separately and distinctly from liking or disliking the actual content of a posting, could be extremely useful.

How to functionally implement such a bifurcated ranking system in an intuitive way -- that does not itself foster user confusion -- is also very much a nontrivial question.

Overall, I believe it would behoove us to more intently explore the entire area of user rankings, with an eye toward clearly delineating the often marked differences between postings as "messengers" of information, vs. their contained messages themselves.

Just as glancing at Harry Powell's tattooed knuckles would tell us little about his true inner motivations, the user rankings on many Web sites may tend to mislead us, in that complex realm of what we really like, what we really dislike, and what we actually value on those sites that make up such an important part of so many lives today.


Posted by Lauren at March 27, 2011 12:15 PM | Permalink
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