The Life-Changing Magic Of Ignoring The Ratings

Several years ago, I had an idea to collect some bad Yelp reviews of U.S. national parks for a story on Adventure Journal.

screen capture from The 17 Best Bad Reviews of National Parks on Yelp April 1, 2014

Since then, it’s been done quite a few more times.

screen captures of "bad reviews of national parks" headlines in online publications

Back in 2014, I was entertained by the idea of giving a negative review to

part of cover of Ken Burns' The National Parks: America's Best Idea

because I had thus far been pretty impressed with things like the Grand Canyon and Mt. Rainier.


For sure, you can have a bad experience anywhere, and plenty of people review the parks to inform others about how the shuttle system works, or if it’s hard to find a parking spot, or something like that, and all those things can be useful. But the idea of someone straight-up rating a natural wonder of the world is still pretty comical, I thought.

text of a bad review of Grand Canyon National Park

When talking to other people about our experiences, sometimes we find ourselves saying things that sound objective.

drawing of dialogue bubbles saying things that sound objective

We all want the best thing we can get in exchange for our time, and/or our money. Maybe you’ve found yourself reading online reviews of books, movies, restaurants, vacuum cleaners, under-sink water filtration systems, skis, backpacks, power tools, running shoes, hotels, or hair salons. I have read thousands of them by this point, and sometimes I’ve read them after buying or experiencing something and been a little shocked.

I took my car to a certain Subaru repair shop for years and loved it, and I discovered later that it had awful Yelp reviews. I skied hundreds of runs on a pair of ski boots that lots of people apparently thought were garbage (I didn’t have any problems with them). I thoroughly enjoyed dozens of meals at a couple different restaurants whose online rating never got above 3.5 stars out of 5.

I had a conversation once with someone who worked in a national park town, and they mentioned noticing a trend of people who were only interested in doing “The Best” things during their visit. We started talking about the idea of “The Best,” and I started to wonder, what is the best, really, and even if we can define it, is it really essential to have “The best” of everything?

hand-drawn itinerary of the "best vacation ever"

When you go into something thinking it will be a five-star experience, are you setting yourself up for disappointment? I think so. After all, on the five-star scale, something reputed to be five stars has nowhere to go but down. If you have no expectations going in, though, well, the sky’s the limit, isn’t it?

About a dozen years ago, a couple climbers in the Wasatch started a thing called “No-Star Tuesdays,” in which they would pick a bunch of routes that a local guidebook had deemed to deserve zero stars, and go and climb them. They purposely went for the opposite of the best, and I think most of them would say they had a hell of a lot of fun doing it.

drawing of text messages between climbers planning no-star tuesdays

Author Dave Eggers, in an interview on the Ezra Klein show last November, talked about the idea of Rotten Tomatoes, the movie review aggregator, and how scary it is that we’ve somehow come to trust a rating system that has made it so that “a messy, complicated form of art can be reduced to a number.”

screen capture of a rotten tomatoes rating of a movie

Eggers said that he thinks the Rotten Tomatoes concept of a good/bad metric for movies will be happening to all other forms of art in some way, and I guess it has already. I use Goodreads to keep track of the books I read, and if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that if a book exists, someone will eventually take a figurative shit on it somewhere on the internet (and they probably already have).

screen capture of one-star reviews of Charlotte's Web

I wonder: Can I survive on something other than 5-star coffee? Can I enjoy three-star books, or trails, or a movie that has a sub-60% Rotten Tomatoes rating? Honestly, most days I think I’m more of a 3-star-breakfast burrito person than a five-star stacked-food person.

I wouldn’t turn down a day on any of the “Best Hikes Ever,” but there are only so many of those, and I’ve had a lot—actually, no, the majority of my best days—on trails that don’t ever make anyone’s list and don’t get rated on TripAdvisor.

screen capture of google autofill results from typing "best hikes ever"

I think that’s what I like so much about the idea of No-Star Tuesdays—something that requires creativity and imagination, instead of just checking a “best of” list, and also says, “we can have fun doing anything.”

I mean, can you imagine rating a sunset? Or looking at the view of El Capitan or the Matterhorn in early morning light and turning to someone and saying, “This is fine, but it’s way better in late summer?” Or telling the happy couple, “Compared to the last wedding I went to, yours has been, let’s say, 3 stars out of 5.”

screen capture of headline about "overhyped" supermoon

I hope Dave Eggers is wrong in saying that we’re well on our way to building a world in which we can steer ourselves to only the highest numerically-rated hiking trails, works of art, and other experiences.

And if he’s not wrong, well:

drawing of two-star review of online reviews

Thanks for reading.
These posts are able to continue thanks to the handful of wonderful people who back Semi-Rad on Patreon for as little as $1 a month. If you’d like to join them, click here for more info—you’ll also get access to the Patreon-only posts I write, as well as discounts to my shop and other free stuff.