The Fault Is Not In Our Stars. It's In Our Thumbs

Netflix has quit letting you assign “star ratings” to the shows you watch. Instead, a viewer can give a thumb’s up or a thumb’s down.

It’s cleaner. Most films and TV shows rated by viewers, I suppose, get more stars or fewer stars than they deserve, however objectively that can be determined.  

When I worked for USA Today, I was struck by the wisdom of an editor there who observed: “Most of life is two stars.” He wasn’t a sourpuss. Most meals you eat in restaurants are neither here nor there. Most TV shows and movies are the same way. Or concerts, or roller coasters or dates.

Brits use the phrase “a bit of all right” to describe someone or something they really like. But more literally, it describes a lot of the rate-able experiences in life. They’re OK.

A thumb’s up and thumb’s down leave a lot of grey area The late Siskel and Ebert, when they really, really liked a film, often gave it “two enthusiastic thumb’s up” — which also made for a better exclamation in the ads for the movie.



I was the entertainment editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, where in title at least, I was Roger Ebert’s boss. I’m sure he never knew it. But really, what would any editor complain about? He was a superb writer and a superb person, right to the very end.

As the Ebert and Siskel TV show got more popular, those thumbs got more exposure, too. But the Sun-Times used the traditional four-star ratings approach, which meant Ebert had to translate his thumb to stars.

Around the office, we wondered about the 2 ½ stars grades he gave to a lot of movies. Since a two-star rating was merely average, a half-star more put it into thumb’s up category, and meant it was probably one of those movies Ebert would praise in the most backhanded (back thumbed?) way. That would made it clear to viewers he wasn’t so enthusiastic.

If he was enthusiastic, as I’ve covered, he’d give it an “enthusiastic” thumb’s up. No one is going to watch a TV show, or read a critic, who is going to give you wishy-washy advice about a movie, even if, truly, it’s what it deserves.

So his stars had to match his thumbs. And average is just sideways.

In a New York Times essay, author Tom Vanderbilt delved into the Netflix endorsement of thumbs over stars.

“People rated,” he explained, “but they watched situationally. Yes, you did give That Important Documentary five stars when you got around to watching it. But at the end of a trying day at the office, you more often settled on viewing some pleasing pap, like ‘The Ridiculous Six.’ ”

The online places where you watch video have no reason to encourage your bad thoughts. Netflix already knows what you’re watching or not, so really, the ratings are your own business. As Vanderbilt points out, Netflix told him the star system really gave them more information than they needed. Either viewers like something or they don’t.

You don’t star-rate Facebook posts or YouTube videos, either.

A thumb’s up or down removes the ambiguity in your own head and gives it status. You’re not saying that stupid film deserves an award, just that it’s not bad. Which means it’s good. Kinda. 2 ½ stars. That’s life.
1 comment about "The Fault Is Not In Our Stars. It's In Our Thumbs".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, April 3, 2017 at 11:04 a.m.


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