The Psychology of Rotten Tomatoes

In an article for Wired, @SVZWood writes about Rotten Tomatoes, the website one in five Americans use to inform their movie choices. Wood’s article showcases three helpful ideas:

Simple algorithms. Rotten Tomatoes has become a successful business and top website based on a simple algorithm—counting. Two movie curators read reviews each day, judge them as positive or not, and then count the totals. If a movie has more than sixty percent positive, it’s marked as fresh.

Numerical authority. There’s something about people, numbers, authority, and precision we just can’t get over. Wood captures this, writing, “There is an authoritative allure in the site’s numerical scores….(people) reflexively—and nonsensically—trust a fresh sixty percent Tomatometer over a Rotten 59%.”

In an age of big data and algorithms and random forests, it’s helpful to keep in mind that simple systems work. One example, football.

Numbers feel secure. They’re a rationalization blanket in a world of unknown things under the bed.

Jobs-to-be-done. Reviewers don’t like the binary nature of fresh or not. Wood notes that, “there is no Underripe or Overripe tomato.” In the terms of Bob Moesta, this is the difference between a supply-side orientation and demand-side orientation.

In JBTD theory, the goal is to find what customers want to do that rather than what a supplier wants or thinks the customer wants. Reviewers (supply) want to share their nuanced take rather than a 👍 or 👎 via their Twitter account. The customers (demand) just want to know if a movie is bad, potentially good, or very good. This plays out in some interesting ways that Rotten Tomatoes has plucked.

For example, a review which is glowingly positive and a review which is slightly positive are both coded as positive. This leads to extreme scores. This is a feature, not a bug. It’s the information people want to know.

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