Why I dislike arbitrary star rating systems (and why I should use them anyway)

If you follow me on sites like Goodreads or Steepster, you might notice my lack of numerical ratings. I’ve waffled back and forth on using the numerical rating system on these sites for awhile–whether it was the star system on Goodreads or Steepster’s 1-100 scale–and never could decide how to use them. Could I maintain a consistent judgement based on these stars? Was Steepster’s rating system to be interpreted as a grading scale, something I have a long and complicated history with?

This is something I’ve debated internally long before joining these sites. I went through this while teaching middle school–how many points were worth taking off for a small mistake? What about medium-sized mistakes that didn’t majorly affect solving the problem? One would think math is an easier subject to grade, but the truth is math is full of little mistakes one can make; in fact, most of my mathematical mistakes are small errors like missing a negative sign.

I like Adagio’s star system a lot: one star is awful, two is bad, three is okay, four is good, and five is great. At this point you’re probably thinking, “That’s a perfectly fine scale. Why not use it?” It’s not so easy.

Part of this indecision comes from a desire to remain consistent across all my ratings, especially books that fall in between a star rating. Should I round up or down? What makes a book worthy of being rounded up or down?

Another factor is the scale at Goodreads: one star is “it was awful”, two is “it was okay”, three is “I liked it”, four is “it was great” and five is “it was amazing”. Since when did we live in a world where two stars out of five mean something was okay? No. Two stars do not grant an “it was okay” rating, nor do three stars grant “I liked it”. I sort of understand where Goodreads is coming from: distinguishing between the good books, the great books, and the potentially life-changing ones. But labeling a scale like this leaves less room for really disliking a book, just as shifting the scale in the other direction would leave less room for really liking a work.

Steepster is another monster entirely. What makes an 84 tea different from an 85 tea? Should I bother to differentiate between the two? How many points does it take to show that a tea is better than another? How do I interpret the 100-point scale–like academic grades? Like a 10-star scale?

A lot behind these scales is open to user interpretation, and I welcome that.

And yet…

I looked through my unranked Goodreads books recently, flipping back to books I read three or four years ago. That’s when I realized something.

I had no memory of reading some of those books.

One of these books sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t have told you what it was about before reading the summary. I still couldn’t tell you the main character’s name or the main plot; I’d have to read over the summary again to tell you even a basic summary.

But I knew I read the book. Somewhere in my memory that book was there, but my interactions with the book didn’t cement it in my mind. I never reviewed the book here, thus never forcing me to truly reflect on the book afterward. All those literature classes and papers were good for something: making me reflect on a book and making me like a book more (or less) after writing a paper on it. (And I majored in French, so I wrote a lot of these papers.) Rating and reviewing these works would help me remember what I’ve consumed for my own reference and for my own satisfaction.

There are a lot of unanswered questions in this post, but I might have just successfully changed my own view on using star rating systems. The main question, as always, is how to start using them.

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