What can be gained from sifting through the opinions of a million moviegoers?
For Noi Sian Koh and fellow researchers, it was a revealing portrait of the cultural differences between Americans and Chinese, albeit one that confirms certain stereotypes of both societies' norms.
In a paper in the journal Electronic Commerce research and Applications, they surmised that because of these differences, web-users in China and the United States would choose markedly different ways to publicly voice their opinions even about a benign topic like movies they'd seen.
The study culled data from millions of user ratings and reviews of 1,000 movies on the popular Web destinations imdb.com and its Chinese "clone," douban.com. On these sites, users' rate movies and can contribute these ratings to the highest ranked top 250 films and the lowly bottom 100.
The findings suggest that Americans and Chinese are heavily influenced by their legacies of individualism and collectivism, respectively.
American reviewers were much more likely to give extreme ratings for films (i.e. scoring it as a one or a 10) than Chinese reviewers. For example, they'd probably be more likely to scoff at the quality of a universally acclaimed movie, say Crazy Heart, or sing the praises of a critical-dud like Couples Retreat.
Reviewers on douban.com were more kind (perhaps a better phrase is "less harsh") to movies that were perceived to be of lower quality, giving collectively higher scores for those titles in the bottom 100. Whereas reviewers in the U.S. expressed their dissenting opinions "vigorously and openly," most Chinese reviewers gave more "reserved" ratings that were very close to average ratings of their countrymen.
"We cannot distinguish whether Chinese have more generous views of the movies or merely restrict themselves to more generous public statements and posted reviews," researchers noted in an important distinction.
Aside from reaffirming the stereotypes about their respective societies, the research may have a more practical purpose. Film distributors (and presumably other businesses) considering releasing their wares in China are cautioned of the potential consequences to overestimating the market because of initial positive reaction online.
Even though Chinese audiences are more kind with their public opinions, that doesn't mean they're more likely to shell out their earnings to actually view a shoddy film.