Issue 224,  published September 3, 2019

Feature Misalignment

What the Weaponization of One Star-Reviews Tells Us About Apple Podcasts

Ashley Carman over at The Verge — who, by the way, is doing great work on the podcast beat — pubbed a fascinating piece last week on a pernicious phenomenon: the weaponization of one-star reviews on Apple Podcasts to actively harm other podcasts.

The Verge piece was built on a few key examples. There’s a scenario in which a podcast personality activates their engaged fanbase to flood negative reviews on a target’s Apple Podcast listing. There’s another in which a podcast personality is suspected of paying an automated service to perform the same task instead. Another thread covers a broader phenomenon of listeners, broadly speaking, piling on podcasts published by figures deemed controversial.

The article seems particularly interested in the system failure aspect of the story: Apple Podcast reviews, as a platform feature, are supposed to help listeners with discovery and selection, but if the feature is easily compromised and weaponized by a coordinated effort from third-parties, why aren’t we seeing more efforts to protect the integrity of the feature? (Carman points out that the platforms still hasn’t fully followed through with many of the affected parties.)

Furthermore, it’s not like Apple Podcast reviews have been particularly meaningful, either as part of a larger value narrative that informs advertising buys — in fact, the piece briefly touches on how ad buyers already instinctively dismiss the platform’s review system as a relevant metric — or in the context of how it relates to Apple Podcast’s black box charts algorithm.

Sure, there may be some trailing belief that reviews and ratings do have some weightage in chart placement determination, given that you can still hear the phrase “please rate and review us” uttered at the tail end of many podcasts. At best, though, it feels like kind of a Pascal’s Wager ritual: it may or may not be helpful, but you might as well throw that call-to-action out there because the cost of doing so is low and there’s potential upside if it does indeed matter.

For the Apple Podcast platform, the reality seems to be the inverse. The review system doesn’t seem to be all that successful as a direct listener discovery mechanism. (If it was, we’d probably hear fewer complaints about “podcast discovery being broken.”) And given the review system’s susceptibility to being weaponized for anti-discovery purposes, it feels like a feature that provides very little upside and disproportionately massive downside. From a risk and reward standpoint, it’s hard to justify the feature’s continued existence.

The way I see it, this story is less about a specific instance of system failure, and more about a broader effect of cultural misalignment. the Apple Podcast experience was first constructed during a much different era of the internet — as part of the original iTunes experience, in the mid-2000s, pre-Gamergate. We live in a very different digital era right now, one in which psychological conflict, territorial spats, and cyberbullying have to be as givens within designed digital spaces, and platforms have to build features in anticipation of that reality. As a user experience, Apple Podcasts still retains many of its mid-2000s assumptions, the largely unmoderated review system among them.

The platform is still stuck in the past, and until makes key design changes to reckon with modernity, its participants will continue paying the price.