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The rule of thumbs

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The rule of thumbs

Opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of SNL Kagan.

The latest reminder of the ongoing democratization of content comes via Netflix Inc.'s recent switch from its traditional five star rating scale to an ultra-simple thumbs up or down icon users may select. The actual star ratings are slowly being replaced with a personalized percent match score based on Netflix's proprietary algorithm of a user's viewing history.

The move to thumbs echoes similar reliance on the overly simple icon by other leading content providers, including social media giant Facebook Inc., Google Inc.'s video aggregator YouTube and music discovery platform Pandora Media Inc.

YouTube switched from a five star system in early 2010 because it determined that user ratings tended to cluster at extremes — i.e. one star or five stars which meant that a multipoint scale was not all that useful in figuring out user tastes. In an effort to make their platform even more user friendly, Netflix and YouTube have concluded the simpler, the better in a one-click world.

Netflix insists that a thumbs-driven "match score" is not a measure of overall popularity of a particular title. Really? Hmmm. I suspect that "personalized" notion is going to get easily lost in an already dumbed-down digital era where mechanized dating on Tinder seeks to replace uniquely human and complex subtleties of romance and nuance.

It reminds me of all the glazed eyes and skepticism at post-election explanations as to why probability-driven pollsters armed with sophisticated algorithms missed how voters were actually going to vote. And voting is already a pretty simple binary proposition — no pesky five star scale is involved.

If the trick is to give users the impression that they have a socially interactive voice without having to collect and analyze exponentially redundant data, thumbs are made to order. Netflix claims that it had over 10 billion five star ratings and Pandora reportedly discovered that too many widely varying responses to a music preference survey was useless to their insight into what listeners want.

In fact, one of the first hit TV shows to incorporate user reviews was "American Bandstand" (1957 to 1987) with its "Rate-a-Record" segment whereby members of the teenage studio audience would review a new release. While it was a bit more complex and helpful than just thumbs, their replies were not exactly award-winning prose — "It's got a good beat to dance to."

The history of thumbs makes a pretty compelling case for why big digital platforms might want to keep it simple. A couple of millennia ago Roman audiences used their thumbs to decide the fate of competing gladiators. Nineteenth-century artist Jean-Léon Gérôme's painting "Pollice Verso" (Latin for "a turned thumb") underscored the approval or disapproval context of voting with our thumbs.

World War II U.S. pilots often gave a confident "thumbs up" sign as they headed off on missions. And you can still find all the 1970s' pictures you want of The Fonz of "Happy Days" fame with his thumbs up.

From 1986 through 2010, film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert used their thumbs to summarize their very articulate and often complex reviews of movies. But their thumbs were just an enhancement and not the main vehicle of their review as is currently all the rage. They set the bar on what an art form reviews of movies, TV shows and stage shows can and should be. Granted, I can still log onto Rotten Tomatoes for a more qualitative review than just thumbs based on an aggregation of published opinions from hundreds of film and TV critics.

Why does our infatuation with thumbs matter? Call me old school but I worry it is just another sign of our digital culture's eagerness to make anything a macro and willingness to reduce everything to a gesture.

I fear that investors — already prone to a herd mentality and focused perhaps too much on momentum and float — might opt to substitute an icon for an insightful research report or an index's complex set of weighting criteria. You can easily sense the danger if you visit an investment online chat room where a reasoned buy or sell with respective priced points has devolved into just another thumbing moment.