Sherlock Holmes and Watson went to a hunting lodge. Sherlock set several game traps on the first day, but when he went to check them, he found that only one trap has been sprung, and that the fox it snared had gnawed its own leg off to escape, leaving nothing but a paw behind. When he came back to the lodge, Watson asked, "Did you catch anything?"
Holding up the paw, Sherlock announced, "The game is a foot!"
How people can fail to appreciate gold like that is beyond me.
Moving on, though: I've been thinking about those little green and red thumbs which FiMFiction lets you use to vote on stories, and what--if anything--they add to the reader experience. Click down below the break for my thoughts.
The ability to rate media semi-anonymously is very common on the internet. Whether it's a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down feature like Youtube and FiMFiction have, a star- or number-based system of some sort, or in some cases, even a single-option feature (usually, an upvote or equivalent), sites which host or aggregate art often give readers a simple and general way to express an opinion without actually commenting.
But who actually benefits from this system? It's certainly not the authors; unexplained expressions of approval or disapproval serve as nothing but ego-boosters, and if that's the goal, then only the single-option feature makes sense. After all, an unexplained expression of disapproval for a story (or picture, or video, or whatever; I'm going to stick with "story" and "author" for the rest of this post, for simplicity's sake) has exactly the opposite effect. And even in the case of that single-option feature, the fact that the author can almost certainly see many other stories with much higher upvote totals can still easily turn "insufficient" upvotes into a net negative. A secret-upvote system, with only the author able to see his or her stories' upvote totals, might serve this purpose, but I've never seen such a system.
It's not particularly to the potential reader's benefit, either. I have never yet seen a site with story voting where the larger part of the userbase felt that the votes on stories corresponded cleanly to quality or enjoyability. True, some people use story popularity as measured by votes to help winnow the list of available stories to chose from, and popularity obviously increases the likelihood that one will be exposed to a story in the first place, but that's not the same as saying that those votes are helping those people find stories they'll enjoy. An excess of downvotes relative to total votes is a pretty reliable indicator of poor quality and/or fetish-y content, but few people ever seem to feel they do a good job of identifying good stories. At best, it seems that up- and downvotes are only moderately useful to potential readers.
That brings us to the last group affected by these things: people who've actually read the story. It's a bit counterintuitive to think that they're the ones who benefit most from these votes--they've already read the story, what do they care about the votes?--but I think they end up being the people who get the most utility out of these kinds of features.
The ability to vote for (or against (or just to rate)) a story provides, I feel, an emotionally satisfying cap to one's reading experience. After finishing a story one enjoys, clicking the thumbs-up icon feels almost like doling out a reward. On the other hand, hitting the red thumbs-down mitigates the feeling that one has wasted their time reading a bad story by giving one a way to express that dissatisfaction. And in both cases, it enables people who are unwilling or unable to leave comments, or who just feel like they don't have anything useful to say beyond "I (dis)liked that" to get that sense of contribution without having to try to put any of it into words.
Of course, plenty of people use up- and downvotes for other purposes--folks who downvote stories without reading them for having the the "wrong" characters or ships or whatever, for example--but when you look at those votes as being primarily a tool for readers who've already finished a story, rather than for authors or potential readers, that kind of misuse becomes much less of a problem. That doesn't change the issues with how those votes are used by sites to promote stories (and those are problems I don't have any ready solutions for), but when you consider who really benefits from these features, it makes any such "abuses" feel less relevant. In the end, it doesn't matter if someone else is trying to game votes; they still serve the reader post-story just as well.