I just watched the episode “Nosedive” from Black Mirror, and…this is our life.
I’ll sum it up if you haven’t heard of it: everyone lives in a world where your credit rating, so to speak, depends on the social capital that you gain through each interaction you have throughout the day. Every social interaction is rated, both by you and the other participant, from 1 to 5 stars with your smartphone. Your goal is to keep your rating as high as possible, because a high rating means more opportunities. Your job prospects, your ability to rent, buy, or borrow, and your social possibilities all depend on this score. The result is…a culture that looks like a plastic Pinterest cupcake recipe.
And what kind of people does this perfect society create? Exactly what you’d expect. A mad-dash for the highest scores, which means a complete abandonment of self.
Just the other day, a customer from my phone job (note, we do not have “satisfaction surveys” for our calls) told me, after our satisfactory encounter, that she would rate me accordingly on the exit survey. It was meant as a compliment but it sent a chill through my blood.
There are actual jobs that hang in the balance of a good or bad rating. That’s meant to be the idea: give shitty service, get a low rating and lose your job. Give excellent service, get a good rating and keep your job. That way, customers vote with their voice about whether you deserve your job or not. Ratings determine whether we can trust a seller, a product, a service, an applicant. “Rate My Professor” is an exercise in keeping your sanity if you are a professor (or live with one, in my case). Etsy and Ebay are entire economies driven by ratings systems.
And you know what’s funny? There are literally things I have avoided because I was terrified of getting low ratings and not being able to make it on that platform. I’ve lived my whole life as if “Nosedive” were a real world, that every demerit goes on your Permanent Record™ and is held against you for all time. Credit scores? Bingo. Just learned that the hard way recently, and it wasn’t a good feeling to realize that my entire existence is controlled by one simple rating.
Think of how we are at work (especially if we work customer service or deal directly with clients). Our jobs depend on how well we can impress other people. With social media and the constant uploading of every minute of our lives (and the surveillance that comes with our social media presence) this is all the more true. Our personal lives are combed through by employers to check for the very social rating score that “Nosedive” suggests in its world.
What about our current life isn’t just like “Nosedive”?
As the article I linked to suggests, we lose authenticity by being obsessed with the permanent record that follows us around in the form of social media, our job history, our credit score. When we screw up, word gets around fast and we soon find ourselves in the center of a lot of drama in our social circles. Facebook, Google Plus, and other platforms seek to connect you with as many webs of contact as possible. It’s all heading in exactly that direction.
But we want a way to verify that someone is trustworthy, right? And what better way to do this than to give social feedback in the form of ratings? It’s like vouching for someone or warning them away, the ultimate social management system. And who wouldn’t want that?
Let’s get real, we’ve all glanced at that five star rating to decide whether we were going to buy from that seller, get a ride from that driver, stay at that hotel. I know I have. There’s a great scene [spoiler alert] where the main character of the episode has her score plummet through a series of totally understandable and hopefully correctable mishaps, but being in a desperate situation, glances at a good Samaritan’s low score and tries to pass on the help. We all do it, don’t we? We can’t help it. We want a way to know whether other people have recommended something. It’s why word of mouth, social capital, is pretty much the most powerful advertising machine you have. And the most damning.
This is tough for creatives, especially those who want to go into business. When I wanted to launch Idionity, I read article after book after website about how to run a successful blog. And, I shit you not, the advice creates a whitewashed, pleasant landscape similar to the plastic world created in “Nosedive.” Everyone’s bright and cheery, with big white smiles and well-lit photos of cute paperclips and untouched coffee posed neatly next to an uneaten biscotti. Is it Pinterest friendly? Is it photographed well, will it look good on Etsy? Does the author have a good bio photo with a big smile? Can that go on Instagram?
Ugh. Shove off!
Authenticity means getting dirty, getting rude, maybe offending people because your opinions don’t always agree. And you know what? It is a risk. People need to make money and they’ve been scared into thinking that people won’t buy authenticity. They’ll only buy cutesy carbon-copy stock photos of white laptops with coffee mugs next to them. They’ll only buy if it looks good on their Pinterest board. They’ll only buy if you have a 5 star rating.
(Just for fun, now that I’ve said this, see if you can’t not notice these coffee-and-gold-paper-clip stock photos everywhere now.)
It’s scary trying to make something in a world where everyone has come to expect instant gratification, where “Etsy handmade” really means factory-produced perfect, where mistakes equal full refunds plus a gift card. Where one ding can haunt you forever. One bad rating can follow you around and scare away other buyers. It’s enough to not want to do anything, isn’t it?
And for introverts, there are extra pressures to perform during social interactions. I know that in the corporate culture, there’s a huge push towards “the customer is always right” which creates a disgusting atmosphere of abuse. If I had a damn dollar for every time my valid, company-backed “No” brought on a demand to speak to my supervisor for a different answer, I’d have more than I make in an hour. Customers are taught that if they bully, demand, and threaten enough, they’ll get whatever they want. Sometimes the employee even gets punished for standing up for corporate policy. In some places, there are limits to how many times you are allowed to escalate the call to your supervisor, meaning there is extra pressure for you to solve the customer’s complaint before it gets to that level, by any means necessary.
Now, I’m all for taking as much as we can from corporations that just screw us over, don’t get me wrong. But this culture doesn’t hurt the customer and it doesn’t hurt the company, it hurts the employee in the middle who gets threatened by the customer on one hand and the company on the other, all for trying to do their job. And you know what it comes down to? One little sentence.
“I’ll be reporting this on the satisfaction survey.”
“1 star for you.”
So screw that. Screw our carefully trimmed and managed corporate plastic world. Go out and do something real.
(All photos in this post are stock photos from Creative Market.)