I just ran into an interesting service on the Web that I thought was worth some discussion. The List, provided by a company called Colossus, is a large list of Internet access providers around the world. At over 1,100 providers listed, it's one of the larger lists I've seen (for another excellent list that also has links to many others, check out Celestin Company's Providers of Commercial Internet Access list at the second URL below), but that's not what's interesting about it. Nor is it particularly unusual that they accept submissions from users, which undoubtedly helps increase the number of providers listed.
What struck me about The List was that as you scan through the listings of providers (which are sorted by country and by area code in the U.S.), you see a Rating field along with all the usual ones for contact information and services offered. The Rating field is derived from information and comments that users are encouraged to add. These comments consist of your real name, your email address, a numeric rating between 1 and 10 (actually, I assume that's the range - I did see someone give a provider a 12 and there weren't any instructions forbidding higher ratings) and a free-form text field for comments.
The Rating field, when it has data to work with, averages the numeric ratings and also reports how many people have rated that provider so you can get a sense of how large the sample size is at that point in time. Needless to say, if only one person has rated a site, the rating doesn't necessarily mean much. However, if you see that a fair number of users have added ratings and comments, it's more likely that the numeric rating reflects some sort of reality. I'm waffling in my statements about the utility of these numbers because I firmly believe statistics can be used to prove anything you want. Even the providers that have racked up 50 or 60 comments may have thousands of customers, so the 50 or 60 who have made comments to The List are unlikely to be truly representative.
However, I especially like the addition of the textual comments. Knowing that someone gave a provider a rating of 2 doesn't inherently mean much, but if you can read that person's reasons for the low rating, you may learn something valuable. Perhaps all the complaints are about a certain technical issue you don't care about, or perhaps the provider has multiple points of presence and all the complaints are about one you don't use - no matter what the specifics, if you can read the complaints and the kudos, you can get an idea of the reality.
A somewhat more subtle part of the text comment feature is that you can often get a sense from the person's writing style if you might or might not agree with that person. As a writer and editor, I'm more likely to respond well to a note that's well written (with proper grammar, capitalization, and spelling) than I am a badly written one-line comment with misspellings. I'll understand both comments perfectly well - and I'm fully aware that not everyone has English as their first language or is capable of writing well - but that's just my impression when I see written text. The reverse may be true of you, but either way, as long as you can identify with or against some of the people making comments, you have more information with which to differentiate among providers.
I commend The List for adding this feature, and I'd like to see more lists adopt it. As long as users realize that such ratings and comments are merely data points and not to be taken as gospel, I think they're tremendously useful in aiding people who are trying to separate the electronic wheat from the digital chaff. I would like to see The List and similar services add the capability to sort list entries based on rating, and (in a list like an Internet service provider list) it would be ideal to be able to sort on some other fields as well, such as price. Even still, The List is a step in the right direction.