Commentary

Top-10 Stupidest Top-10 Lists

I see that Forbes has released its "World’s 100 Most Powerful Women" ranking -- and once again, I was left off. I know what you are thinking -- but I figure if Stephen Colbert can be write-in-voted 69th in Maxim's "hottest woman" and Augusta can break down and admit persons of the female persuasion, then almost any gender thing is possible.

Of course, top 100 anything lists are pretty stupid to begin with (and I'm not saying that because I didn't make it -- really). I mean, look at the Forbes list, which puts the executive editor of The New York Times Co. ahead of both Michelle Obama and the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, and ranks Sofia ("look at me, I have massive cleavage!") Vergara ahead of Tina Brown.

Every ranking list claims to be based on some sort of statistical modeling that necessarily places one person, place or thing over another -- but in fact there is very little science to it, as the front ends are loaded with subjective assumptions and values that skew the results. Lists are created almost entirely for their PR value -- since who, at the end of the day, really cares who's the most powerful, or wealthiest or hottest? Thus, most of these lists are harmless.

But too often when lists are issued by "media" organizations, they can be mistaken for being accurate or informed. Take for example college "rankings." Not the preseason AP poll that this year likes USC for #1 in football, but the periodic ranking of "best" undergrad or best business school (or biggest party school). Some people take these lists seriously (not just the schools, who routinely complain about the calculating algorithm when they are outranked by a rival.) Frankly, there's just too much urban mythology around why one school is better than another and just what wonders each will endow their grads. Who among us has not hired Ivy Leaguers who underperformed kids from Midwestern state universities?  Some of the most luminous leaders in the tech space did not even get through college.

But for better or worse, the public is enamored with rankings. My local paper, which runs very little of substance anyway, reserves about 10 column inches each Monday to the weekend movie box office results, at the expense of covering something truly newsworthy. Look at all of the signature lines that come into your inbox that tout a ranking on this list or that, many of which you can buy your way onto. Have you received your "Who's Who" solicitation today? Don't worry, it's coming.

But the most troubling development I see is paid listings.  Many magazines now offer professionals like MDs and lawyers the chance to pay for being included in a "best of" geographic ranking, promising "press" exposure and plaques that can hang on office walls with this not-so-clearly deceptive information. Folks not inclined to do their homework can be sucked in by such claims.

Rankings after all are not standings -- which are based on actual results, like how many games the Yankees are ahead of the ahem, Red Sox (something vital to our national passion of barroom braggadocio.) But you can be sure there is nothing scientific about most other rankings, especially if they have anything to do with looks, clothes, eligibility or "best."

Unless, of course, you want to vote me your "favorite Friday columnist for MediaPost," a ranking I will try mightily to monetize -- almost certainly without success.

Tags: magazines, top 10
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