‘Entire evenings of my life have been shaped by the internet’s review culture’: why we’re obsessed with rating systems

Humans are compelled to review. The five-star and 10-point rating systems just make implicit sense to us, each number having its own gravity and texture that can be transposed on to a gut-feeling or opinion. So, last night’s dinner: what was that? I had a sort of dal and paratha thing that I’d put at about 7/10 (it was nice, but 8 feels too much). Obviously Dune: Part Two was a five-star movie whereas Dune was maybe only a four.

But we are powerfully swayed by other people’s reviews, too. I am forever in some area of London, not knowing where I am or what I want to eat, squinting at Google Maps through raindrops, deciding whether I want to eat at the 4.4-rated pizza place or the 4.3-rated Vietnamese place. Entire evenings of my life have been shaped by the aggregated internet review culture of Rotten Tomatoes telling me one streaming-service film is slightly better than another. I have blindly bought fragrances, books and music just based on what 1,000 or so anonymous reviewers sort of rated each one out of five. The number out of five having an experience pipeline is an intrinsic part of our lives.

These are all things, though. You know where you are with a thing. What’s harder to attribute a number value to are those ambient feelings and experiences that make up a week. There are a lot of hours in a week (168, I just checked), and a lot of minutes, too (10,800). Not all of those can be good and not all of them can be bad. Over the course of that time, how might you rate an entire week of your life? Well, there’s only one way to find out, I suppose.

Looking at the monthly Instagram round-ups of friends with a wincing feeling of despair:

The start of the week is also the start of the month and all of my friends are posting round-ups on Instagram of all the things they did in April: the meals they ate, the parties they went to, the walks they enjoyed, the cherished friends they spent time with. I make my thumb sore from liking so many of them. This photo-dump manner of posting emerged a couple of years ago and I briefly enjoyed doing it (and loved seeing it), until two things happened: I saw an errant throwaway tweet by someone I don’t know declaring the trend to be “cringe”, and also, due to psychological reasons I refuse to ever interrogate, I stopped looking in the mirror whenever possible and stopped having my photo taken and, by extension, taking any photos.

It’s a shame, though: I feel as if these times and experiences are slipping through my fingers, when they can be marked and archived and remembered with a quick thumb-tap. It’s trite to observe it, but we have an all-powerful tool in our pockets the likes of which no generation of humanity has ever had access to before, and the fact that we can just bop a quick photo of a particularly good pizza (I had one last week with a whole burrata on top of it, unfurling like a flower: already the sensation of it is fading!) before we eat it so we can remember it for ever is an unimaginable gift. I see a particularly good dump – someone I know went on a bracing camping weekend in Scotland, fresh air and clear water and a well-earned roast in a cosy tavern – and endeavour to take more photos, to capture more memories, to not let entire months of my life slump past me in a grey malaise.

I look around where I am. I’m in a pub that is a 50-yard walk from my house, drinking a can of non-alcoholic lager and, later, once I’ve done this one bit of work I’ve been putting off for a fortnight, I’m going to play three rounds of pool against myself to practise my doubles. The phone stays in my pocket. Not everything needs remembering.

A personal training session that ended up being embarrassing for both of the people involved:

I have been making some small lifestyle changes – nothing crazy, just more fruit and vegetables and “healthy proteins”, a bit more running and wayyyyy less ketamine – and there have been little to no results, so I booked in a personal training session with the most friendly PT at my gym.

It was a quiet grey Tuesday afternoon, in an empty venue filled only with the hard tinny bounce of exercise-adjacent dance music, and the PT showed me around a few arm and chest machines that I had never even noticed before. At the end I was meant to lie backwards on a bench and lift two 10kg dumbbells in the air, which proved impossible, so he quietly went and got the 8kg dumbbells, which also proved impossible, so he quietly went and got the 6kg dumbbells, which were sort of possible. I clenched and went pink through the exercise as he stared at me like a placid dog. “Right,” he said, afterwards. “Well.”

I’ve been thinking about death a lot recently – you get to that age, where it starts to ambiently preoccupy your thoughts, and you think about how much of your life you have lived and whether you have done anything with it – and part of that could well be behind the vegetables and exercise thing. There on the bench, slicked to the leather with a pool of my own meek sweat, I felt further away from health than ever. In an effort to fend it off as long as possible, I now have to go through this humiliating ritual twice a week every week until I die. Right. Well.

A really good lunch from my big list of lunch spots:

A couple of years ago I started a big list on my phone of restaurants I want to go to, because there are so many in London worth the trip and I really shouldn’t ever be in one of the better food cities in the world going, “Yeah I’ll have the £16 pub cheeseburger, please. And yeah if you can make sure it is really crap – just awful, bad chips as well – that’d be great!”

In a stolen two-hour space between a couple of meetings, I realised I was close to one I’d been wanting to hit for ages – Sonargaon in Whitechapel for the samosa chaat, 3.4-rated on Google which perhaps says more about the review system than this entire week-long experiment – and it was a really sublime way to spend £3. I spent 10 minutes eating on a bench in a nearby park with nowhere near enough napkins for the amount of mess I was making, then got the bus home with a smile on my face.

Accidentally watching the dog while he took a piss in the park: Zero stars

Normally I look at my phone while my dog does any sort of toilet stuff, but this morning I left it upstairs, so I just stood and zoned out and watched him. It was only a couple of seconds in that I realised I was looking quite directly at The Stream. Startling and uncomfortable.

Getting a long meandering voicenote from a friend:

I was a late convert to voicenote culture – so many of them start with 10 seconds of umming and ahhing, the sound of wind blowing violently in the background, the statement, “I’m sending you a voicenote…” (I know!) and, if there’s any pertinent information in there, you have to scratch through the audio and find it and replay it and, in certain circumstances, write it down. But then I grew up.

Voicenotes are so joyfully intimate – I like hearing the little background sounds of someone’s house, or that feeling of knowing the phone is being walked around with them, as they half-do a chore while talking to you – and I do think, ghoulishly, once people of my generation start to experience more people in their life who die, they will treasure old voicenotes from them where they can hear that person talking (so casually and unguarded!) again.

One of my favourite tricks is to try to send a voicenote from a party or a pints session with the boys, so I can play it back the next day and be in semi-conversation with my drunk self – he seems like he’s having fun – and anyway my mate, Dan, sends voicenotes that I think could be classified as art and he did me a five-minute blockbuster where he just talked me through all the food he’s currently fermenting. The joy of my day.

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An M&S meal deal that didn’t actually do the meal-deal calculation at the self-checkout:

I was caught in a rush between a train (one star) and a six-hour coach (zero stars) so, in a frantic whirl, grabbed the most rogue M&S meal deal of my life, an extra bottle of water and obviously a packet of Percy Pigs, then went to go and sit in a slightly too-small seat on a slightly too-dark-to-read coach while eating a claggy southern-style chicken wrap. Contrasted with the week’s other lunch (good), this felt particularly like failure.

Every meal deal I ever eat while moving quickly because I am running late, actually, feels like failure and I probably have at least one a month. I should basically never be eating a packet of crisps in public unless in a moment of extreme psychic distress. It took me an hour to eat both halves of the wrap because I was so disappointed in myself. Coach got in slightly earlier than advertised, though.

Fretting over buying a vitamin C serum for many, many weeks: Zero stars

I added a vitamin C serum to my skincare routine a couple of years ago and felt like it gave me results. You can’t say that in front of “skincare people” – they always tell you that you are actually washing and moisturising your face completely wrong, you idiot – but a brand of vitamin C serum I quite liked became too much of a hassle to buy (it had to be imported; timing the end of one bottle with the 10-12 day delivery timing of another caused headaches) and the high street serum I replaced it with tripled in price for no reason at all, so I had to find a new one.

Searching for a new brand to commit to is an overwhelming chore: I sat down at my computer to do proper and normal research, but then ended up on one forum, then another forum, then reading reviews, then I got distracted. I almost bit the bullet and bought one, but then I balked at the delivery fee. I did the same again the next day, then a lot of a bit of the morning after that. I left tabs open, I mulled. I feel like it should be easier to make decisions than this by now. Anyway I finally got the Geek & Gorgeous one and if it doesn’t fix all my problems (both aesthetic and mental!) in two or three applications, then this has been a lot of energy wasted for nothing. You’re not allowed to contact me and tell me that this was wrong.

A shower I couldn’t really get the temperature right on:

We recently moved from one flat in our building to another, the new flat is in a slightly different configuration to the old one, and it’s just been a series of small domestic nightmares in a row. One of them is: it’s been three months and I still can’t really get a handle on the shower – the temperature gauge is too sensitive, veering from scalding-hot to bone-cold over the course of a half-millimetre dial turn – and I just had one of those showers where you are constantly fiddling with the heat, never quite finding temperature parity.

I find, perhaps, oversized humiliation in these small daily failures, and as I just accepted the shower’s unsatisfying water it made my mind start to wander, which, as ever, makes it spiral around the plughole of the abyss. A close friend turned 40 recently; another had a gorgeous, squishy little baby; a man I know through friends and have a lot of fondness for, but don’t really actually know had a mild heart attack. I cannot lift a child-sized dumbbell. I am 36, now, closing in on 37, and realised with a clunk I am closer to my 40th birthday than my 30th. My 30th birthday was a great, glorious, sunny day, spent at the pub in a crisp perfect white T-shirt with a number of friends I don’t really know any more, and I thought about how much my life had changed in such a relatively short but also sort of long period of time (and, by extension, how many rented flats I had moved from to other rented flats: the number is five).

I spent my 20s not thinking too much about how much of my life was moving past me, and then a bit of my 30s happened, and all of a sudden I feel like – however distantly – I am counting down on the timer rather than counting up on it. How many more chubby little babies will be born, how many more bottles of vitamin C serum will I go through, how many failed chest presses, until I am described as “a guy I sort of knew had a mild heart attack”?

I sat on the edge of the bath, wrapped in a towel, shivering slightly and performed the skincare routine I pray will keep me looking young for as long as possible. I still pay money to a landlord to use a shower that is unfit for purpose. Also, we are out of shower gel and I don’t know where the replacement bottle is. Surrounded by steam, I experienced a profound feeling of failure.

The aggregated week in general:

Started pretty well, then I think around the time of the meal deal it really began to slip, and by Friday I was emotionally in the gutter. The samosa and the voicenote bring it up to around a two stars.

Four Stars: a Life. Reviewed by Joel Golby is published by HarperCollins at £16.99. Buy it for £14.95 at guardianbookshop.com

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