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10 July 2010

0/10 - SEE ME...

Ohhh soddit! There’s something that makes me want to vom. I hate it. Something that not only bugs me, but rags me rotten. It’s a product of publisher pressure, wooly editorial thinking, water-muddying marketing manipulation and the fact that so many folk have the attention spans of gnats. With Alzheimers. “What are you blithering on about, Karl?” Yes, I can hear your brains (creepy, huh?).

What I am a-blither about is as follows: ‘Daily Splurge - 5 Stars’; ‘Carpal Tunnel Gaming Magazine - 9/10’; ‘A must-oggle! - 99%’… Any of this sound familiar? Let’s take it further. Ease of use: 8/10; Build quality: 9/10; Results: 9/10; Value for money: 10/10; Overall: -0/10. Yes, I’m ranting about the rating.

Marketing minions love ratings, partly because ratings are often over-inflated and partly because ratings enable marketeers to condense a sage, 1,000-word appraisal of a product into a simple ’splat! It’s five stars in Some-magazine-or-other!’. Publishers are also partial because good ratings get their organ inserted into the product producer’s marketing grunt. And the great unwashed who, disturbingly, all seem to have ADHD, can simply pop into the newsagent, flick through a rag, skip the lovingly crafted, well-considered body copy and look at the rating at the end of each review. Buying decisions made.

It could be argued that we lead such busy lives these days, what with shopping, stressing about debt, burning out at work, more shopping, watching cable, socially networking, shopping and generally administrating our incredibly busy finances, made the worse by too much shopping, many things become neglected. Including considered opinion. Before I blow an aneurism, let us step back and do that considering thang, looking at the coal-face of magazine journalism in particular.

We descend into the pit in cages, hard hats atop, armed with machine tools with which to mine a rich seam of editorial content. Hacking away at the mother lode, we accumulate raw material and plenty of slag... We’ll dump that metaphor because it’s crap. What happens in review-land is that a product will land on the desk, along with the obligatory, oh-so-unbiased reviewers’ guide and press release, and a choice will present itself. Do we regurgitate the press release and hit deadline? Or do we become intimately acquainted with said product and make life difficult by attempting to crowbar our considered opinion into the wordcount-restricted review template?

Templates make life easy for magazine and newspaper designers, a few too many of whom like nothing better than to cut, paste and style up copy that they couldn’t give a stuff about, so long as it looks pretty and the resulting PDF gets to bureau on time. For the hack, the real head-scratcher comes when it’s time to apply the obligatory ratings. Has he or she missed something? Is the product gold dust, or is it knob? Time is ticking away, the pub beckons, advertising sales might not like an overall score of less than 80% and there’s the prospect of an irate PR calling up when a slating is given. Oh well, bury criticism in the body copy that no-one is likely to read and give it plus-80% regardless. Unless, of course, it’s a real lamer and the product supplier isn’t an advertiser. Sometimes it’s a delight to award one star, 1/10, 1% or whatever.

There’s another factor that flaws. What is genuinely five stars this year may easily turn out to be three stars next year as other products step up. Take PropellerheadsReason. On launch, reviewers said: “Coo-gosh-cor-wow! I’ve just come.” But with the prospect of Reason 5 looming at the end of summer 2010, version 1.0 might eBay for, say, 50p. Software is very victim to this deflatory phenomenon, so look at hardware. An original MiniMoog or Hammond B3 will still make a muzo’s palms sweat, but a Casio CZ-101? Doubt. Cachet makes ratings work in an opposite way, temporally. You might have got the idea that I’ve a downer on ratings, then. Well I have.

I don’t mind awards when deserved, so long as it’s obvious they are valid for just the year in which they’re issued, but rolling ratings tend to roll down a slope as time progresses, and they detract from the body copy. It’s only by actually reading the review that you can see an accurate picture of whether or not the product is right for your needs. Sure, some new gadget might have picked up 90%, but it could easily be completely inappropriate for you.

So, it’s my blog and I can be petulant if I want to. Hence I am not rating each product as it’s reviewed. No MuzoBlog verdicts - you’ll just have to read the copy and make up your own mind. Sure, a MuzoBlog awards' system, complete with self-promo logo, may be devised, but awards will be date-stamped and thus time-limited. That is my decision, the decision that is mine. So there.

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