Tuesday, September 7, 2010

My Rating Philosophy

As I stretch forth my wings on my own blog – I’m quite fond of “W.L. Swarts Reviews The Universe” as that it pretty much what I do! – I thought it would be an excellent time to establish my criteria for my readers from the outset. Every reviewer ought to have a ratings philosophy and I certainly have mine.

First, my credentials. I wrote for a review/comparative sales site for almost ten years. As I am deleting my material from that site and posting it independently here, I am essentially erasing a decades worth of “street credibility.” However, I was the second most prolific author on that site when I left with 4745 reviews and posts and I was one of the most popular authors on the site (in some categories more than others!). I saw it as pointless to stay with that site when my portfolio became invisible to outside members and the new site template seemed to be de-prioritizing reviews, as opposed to sales content. So, here are some of my basic review philosophies!

The Backstory Of My Review Philosophy

I grew up in Rochester, New York where I lived on the outskirts of the more affluent suburb of Brighton. I lived in the fortunate borderland between the city and the suburb that allowed me to go to the better (Brighton) schools and have all the safety and security of living in the 'burbs, without the pesky problem of being so close to other schoolmates that I actually was troubled by such things as friends. In Rochester, the local newspaper, The Democrat And Chronicle, had (up until recently) a resident movie critic Whose Name I Shall Not Speak. Said critic was so liberal with his rating system that one would think he was rating on a scale of 6 - 10. If he suspected a movie would be crap, it seems he just would not go to see it.

Now, on a ten point scale, you have a lot of room to illustrate a discriminating nature and while virtually anyone who cares will read the article and argument for why you rated a work what you did, a number on a ten point scale immediately draws the eye. The sheer number of 10s this reviewer gave out for works that were not perfect or classic was just disgusting.

My Rating Philosophy

My general disdain for the Reviewer Whose Name I Shall Not Write led me early on to develop my own system of rating things. I strive for consistency and I love a ten-point scale. Ten point scales make sense to me because they allow a sophisticated range that clearly illustrates the difference between works. I rate my works on a ten-point scale in this way:

Movies - 3 points plot, 3 points character, 3 points acting, 1 point special effects,
Music - 3 points lyrics, 3 points voice, 3 points music, 1 point album production/composition/arrangement,
Books - 3 points plot, 4 points character, 3 points style
Toys – 3 points sculpt/coloring, 3 points balance/articulation, 3 points accessories, 1 point collectibility
Appliances – 3 points effectiveness, 3 points ease of use, 3 points durability, 1 point cleanability.

There are some variations with this general concept, like for instance when I review a holiday ornament, I consider “effects” instead of “accessories” (modifying the “toys” rating system) and when I review a health and beauty product, “value” always plays a factor. But, in general, I have a consistent system for considering all things which pass before my eyes and attention.

With this degree of consistency, those who read my works are likely to have a very straightforward gauge of where things fall. This also allows two important things: 1. In movies or music, works that are catchy and use gimmicks to overwhelm do not blow away more substantive works (say what you will, but Jurassic Park is no The Godfather!) and 2. No one gets points simply for showing up.

One of my fundamental problems with many reviewing systems or reviewers is they don’t start at the bottom. My reviews rate from 0 (that’s “zero!”) to 10.

On a ten point scale, ratings become much clearer and the difference between something like Heather Nova's album South (a perfect album in my pantheon) and Dar Williams' album My Better Self (which has one song that just gums up the near perfection of the album) becomes clearer. On a more popularly recognizable example, a ten point scale can illustrate the difference between The Empire Strikes Back (perfect!) and Alien (the shot of Sigourney Weaver's crack is SO dated!).

On a ten point scale, it's easy to argue that 10s are reserved for perfection, zeroes are reserved for "these are so bad everyone involved should be shot." With a ten-point scale, such levels of discrimination are easy to illustrate and form a much more universal standard for products being reviewed.

As a natural result of utilizing a more discriminating sense of rating for products, the body of a reviewer's works ought to end up resembling something close to a bell curve.

How I Review

I am a tough reviewer. The advantage of having standards and a discriminating mind is that I attempt to set myself apart from other reviewers by actually standing by my convictions. The first is the bell curve.

Objectively speaking and by the basic definitions, most experiences one has ought to be average. Sure, we don’t seek out average movies, but the truth is, when you watch enough films, most of them seem a lot more average than anything else. In my tenure reviewing so far, I have 4700 reviews from the other site (the other 45 were commentary pieces and the like). The system there was a 5 point system with 1 star being “avoid” and 5 stars being “excellent.” My portfolio looked like:

352 – 5 star reviews
1046 – 4 star reviews
1829 – 3 star reviews
1046 – 2 star reviews
427 – 1 star reviews

Just by having objective standards, I ended up with a pretty close to true bell curve (some bad teas and “Dark Shadows” in recent months made it a little bottom-heavy!)

Earlier, I cited a few examples of movies and music because they are inoffensive, but offer a good idea of a way to evaluate a system of evaluation. I shall return to that example to make this part of the argument. The Empire Strikes Back is almost inarguably a great film. If I go to a reviewer and see that they have rated The Empire Strikes Back five stars, I have a sense that that person has a real appreciation for cinematic greatness. Indeed, a four-star review where the person argues that the dialogue is a little stilted, I can accept as well. Even if I did not think The Empire Strikes Back was a perfect film, if I see a reviewer has rated it five stars, this clues me into the idea that this reviewer is falling along with public opinion and while it might not be my personal tastes, they seem to get it. I look at the person who rates The Empire Strikes Back with one star and their review just says "this movie is dumb" and I just say "this person is a poor reviewer."

The problem comes in with the less-than perfect movies. If I look at various reviewers who have reviewed The Empire Strikes Back with five stars (or a perfect 10) and I want to know which one is the better reviewer or the reviewer I truly believe I can trust more. Reviewer #1 has rated The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather, Just Friends, Scary Movie 4 and The Lake House all with five stars. My thought is going to be either "This person likes everything" or "This person has no taste." If it is either of those reasons this reviewer is someone I would avoid. I am not that reviewer. If Reviewer #2 has rated the same five films, but the ratings are all over the board, with the first two at five stars, the next two at one star and the last one with three stars; my reaction is to say "This is a person who sees lots of movies and has the ability to discriminate between them!" That is a useful reviewer to someone as a consumer. The other permutation, of course, are the ones who I look up and they have rated The Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek II, Alien, Enemy Mine, and Solaris, and I evaluate them in a similar fashion with the caveat "These are people who are primarily interested in science fiction films." The useful reviewer of the two in such a circumstance will also be the one who illustrates a clear sense of discrimination.

I am no longer that last reviewer. I will watch anything and everything and I rate it along the exact same scale. That means that Dr. No is being evaluated against Casablanca and Vampires Suck.

A Good Place To Reiterate The Point

Not everything in life is perfect or even excellent. It's not all sunshine and lollipops. And for those people for whom it is all sunshine and lollipops, the ones who make good reviewers are the ones who are able to say "Yeah, well, this day is too hot" or "This lemon-flavored lollipop is more satisfying than the unflavored lollipop over there." To make the example even more painfully clear; all movies are not great, all science fiction movies are not great. There are continuums. The useful reviewers are the ones who either attempt to explore the entire continuum and rate components against each other or they pick a niche and rate components against each other (Scary Movie 4 is in direct competition against other lamebrained humor films like Date Movie and The 40-Year Old Virgin; leave whatever prejudices against the lamebrained humor genre at the door – that is not me!).

In Conclusion

If you’re looking for a solid reviewer who has genuine standards, I’m your reviewer. I review all sorts of things and my latest reviews and archived reviews are all coming right up in the next few days and weeks! I look forward to becoming the reviewer you turn to for product reviews on all sorts of products, even if my bias is clearly media!

(FYI, some of my early reviews will be mixed in with my newer works as I make the changeover and thus some of my ratings may seem odd. There are just some movies and c.d.s I will not go back to to re-experience to write a better review!).

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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