Facebook & Uber are rolling out emoji-based ratings. One tech giant gets it. The other doesn’t.

We now live in a reputation economy and ratings are our new currency. Ratings don’t just help us decide where to eat; they determine which restaurants might actually stay in business.

But most of the systems out there for rating services, goods and content are deeply flawed. Stars, hearts, and likes need to go. Our new currency needs to be denominated in emoji.

Take Uber: drivers live in fear of getting anything less than five stars because it could get them booted from the service. Some newbie riders carelessly give out a career-killing 4 stars for a good ride that wasn’t the best ride of their life, while other more experienced riders default to doling out five stars no matter the quality of the ride. The five-star system is no longer a scale. It’s a binary system that consists of pass (5 stars) and fail (4 stars or below).

With ratings playing such a major part in our lives, there’s a lot of pressure to figure out how to make them more effective. YouTube, for one, ditched its star system back in 2010 for a thumbs up or down after realizing that, like Uber, the vast majority of people just gave the maximum stars. Now Uber is toying with the idea of ditching its five stars, too. In 12 cities, the company is currently experimenting with showing customers either a thumbs up and thumbs down or three different emoji (😟😑😀). The thinking here, a spokesperson told us, is that fewer options to choose from might result in more accurate feedback.

Uber isn’t the only tech giant trying to make its rating system more nuanced. Facebook, which has historically only allowed users to “like” content, announced this year that it will roll out emoji reactions to introduce more complexity to its platform.

Facebook gets it: users will be able to express love or anger or sadness instead of just “like.” Uber, on the other hand, does not get it: Uber’s plan for emoji short-changes an already overly simplistic transaction.

Emoji could be a really interesting way for a company like Uber to suss out exactly why a driver got three stars instead of five. If the company is really interested in getting actionable feedback from their customers, wouldn’t it be more helpful to know that a ride was 😱 (scary) versus one that was just 😒 (annoying)? Offering 😟😑😀, or any set of symbols that places possible emotions on a spectrum, is just a cuter stand in for the star system. This is where Facebook gets it right: the positivity of a ‘like’ isn’t the only emotion worth communicating.


Sometime around the beginning of the last century, the author Edward O’Brien was working on an anthology of short stories. He needed a system to rate the thousands of stories he read that year while compiling the book. He eventually settled on a star system—zero stars for a very bad story and three stars for an excellent one—and placed the starred list in the back of the very first edition of “The Best American Short Stories.” Within a few decades, the star system had caught on as a way to rate restaurants, theater, hotels and films. (Strangely, the system never caught on in the literary world.)

Countless studies have shown the biases and flaws that riddle such systems of assessment. Sometimes the ratings skew heavily towards favoring certain factors arbitrarily or they are too arbitrary in general or everyone just winds up giving good reviews. People in the hotel industry often criticize such rating systems for being misunderstood by the rating public, being too complex or failing to account for the nuance of different types of service. In the restaurant industry, the rating system is often criticized as “stupid and broken.”

And yet, increasingly ratings are a huge factor in how we make our decisions. We don’t just go to a restaurant we’d like to try. First we consult four friends, GQ’s online city guide and Yelp. A system some author came up with in 1915 to rate short stories that he liked now determines where you go out to eat. 🍴

In our still young history of text-based human communication, emoji have evolved as a way to add context when words alone won’t or can’t really do the trick. One company, Vicomi, is already experimenting with what it calls “feelbacks,” a ratings tool that asks people to choose how they feel.

In the age of the quantified self, when our every move is being transcribed into a data point, it makes sense that we would turn to emoji to color in the picture. They could be a quick solution for tracking emotional reactions, not just for customer service, but also for opinions, which can be tricky to translate into numbers. Perhaps in the not so distant future, we will be able to rate the next Hollywood blockbuster as 😢😭🏆, the hip new coffee shop that opened around the corner as 😒, or your recent ride on the bus as 💩👃👎😖, which is probably why you downloaded Uber in the first place.