On Rating Systems and User Motivations
Relevant quote: "Great videos prompt action; anything less prompts indifference. Thus, the ratings system is primarily being used as a seal of approval, not as an editorial indicator of what the community thinks about a video."
The general intention of designers when they put together a rating style system such as the one at YouTube is with the idea that ratings will be used as a way users can judge content. Unfortunately, if all your content is either not rated at all or rated 5 stars, users won't get much out of those ratings.
This isn't a universal issue though. Some sites use star ratings with great success. Take Amazon and Netflix for example. Users of those sites are diligent about rating the content and sometimes will spend time on the site for the sole purpose of rating. Why are users willing to spend time rating movies on Netflix but won't take a couple of seconds to rate videos on YouTube? The answer has to do with user motivation and the inherent selfishness of users. Now, do not take umbrage, there's nothing wrong with being a selfish user. It's the job of a site designer to encourage you to act otherwise, and if they fail, it's no skin off your teeth. Carry on.
What's important for us, the designers, is to recognize and be aware that users are inherently selfish and will be highly unlikely to engage in activities that do not offer them a benefit of some kind. No one rates videos on YouTube, because the act of rating a YouTube video does not provide you with any benefit. The only people it could, in theory, assist are the submitter of the video and some small percentage of the user community when they browse for the video. But you the rater? You don't get anything.
In contrast, if I go to Netflix and spend some time rating the movies I've watched I can actually see the recommendations improve. The more movies I rate, the better Netflix's recommendations turn out to be. Thus, I have a good motivator for continuing to rate the content. Luckily for Netflix's user base, my ratings also benefit the rest of the community. Amazon works the same way. Ratings work out exactly the way we want because there's a clear benefit to everyone when it comes to contributing.
So what if YouTube took a page from that book? What would be interesting to see is if they instituted a recommendation system that actually used those video ratings to pull up similar videos relevant to you, the selfish user, would people start using the rating system differently?
Not easy to test without some significant work, but my inclination is that yea, you'd see some changes over time.
We could probably extrapolate the general theory at work here to a lot of other features and applications. The key take away is that if you want a user to take an action, you have to provide reasonable motivation no matter how small and quick the interaction appears. For example, most discussion forums are populated mostly by lurkers, only a small percentage contributes. Designing better motivators into your design could increase participation and lead to a better overall experience.
It's food for thought, in any case.