Make a Stand Against Top-10 Lists

Film critic and social media convert Roger Ebert made a stand. I’m with him. No more top-10 lists.

I’ve been planning to write this post since October 31st, the day after Roger wrote for the Wall Street Journal: “Why I Loathe Top 10 Film Lists“. I wanted to put some distance between my agreement and responses from top-10 whores like Business Insider and Huffington Post—the latter dignified Roger’s commentary with a lowly tweet from a Mother Jones blogger.

That blogger, Kevin Drum, tweets a real puker: “@ebertchicago’s ‘Why I Loathe Top 10 Film Lists’ doesn’t actually say a word about why he loathes Top Ten lists”. Roger gives lots of reasons, they’re just not organized into a tidy top-1o list that little brains can easily comprehend.

A Personal Boycott
Top-10 lists aren’t new inventions by any means. They’ve been a favorite of late-night talkshow hosts for decades. I’ve long used them for their presentation value. Now they’re editorially worthless, because there are so many of them and for the wrong reasons. “The plague of lists has grown much more fearsome in the age of the Internet”, Roger writes. “That isn’t because Website owners give a damn about lists. It’s because they are obsessed with page visits”. He’s oh-so- right about that.

In Oct. 5, 2010, post “Non-To 10 List for Journalists“, I complained:

I’ve come to loathe top-10 lists, and I have stopped writing them. They are a sucker’s play for pageviews, although I have always used top-10s mainly for their presentation value. Now that they’re everywhere and displacing original content, I’ve got something of a personal boycott going (hence, why there have been none from me recently at Betanews).

Funny, Roger and I both use “loathe” to express our editorial dissatisfaction with top-10 lists. I posted my last top-10 list for Betanews on Aug. 9, 2010. Before then, I switched mostly to top-5 lists, as a way of differentiating from the rabble while using an editorially valuable tool for presenting content. But the Web is overrun with top-10 lists. They’re lazy work for cheap pageviews—and, worse, as Roger observes:

The most insidious subterfuge of Best Lists is how they extract free work from freelance critics. Here is a typical email I’ll receive: ‘For the World Congress of Hot Air Ballooning, we are asking experts like yourself to choose the 10 best hot-air-balloon movies of all time, and write 50 words on each one.’ I absolutely am not making this up.

My top-10 lists are hard work, because much thought and research goes in to them. But substantive is meaningless in this era of pageview gaming top-10 lists. Some examples:

Today, I did some random topical, top-10 searches:

  • Top 10 list“: 810 million results. The number speaks for itself, although Google only serves up 72 pages before warning of duplicates.
  • Top-10, iPhone“: 306 million results. I scrolled through more than 60 pages before finding some non-iPhone lists like this one—”What are the top 10 best rate impermeable mascaras?” served up by I refuse to link. This bizarre mashup is all about gaming pageviews.
  • Top 10, Obama“: 237 million results. It’s a strange collection of top-10s.

Weeds of the Web
I’ve got two fundamental problems with top-10 lists: There are too many of them and there are too many of them. The first “too many” is the problem of overrunning the Web with junk content. One reason so many online news organizations can’t make money: There is more content than there is available advertising to fill it. Related: The abundance of content diminishes its value in aggregate so that ad values are lower.

The second “too many” relates to cheap labor Roger mentions. Top-10 lists are easily produced by just about anyone. Who needs a journalist or real writer? Many organizations produce them simply for pageviews rather than for any meaningful editorial value to readers. Top 10s are typically evergreen posts, unlike topical news stories; they’re ideally suited for searches. For example, I Googled “What are the top 10 animal exercises” assuming that surely there’s no list for that. Oh, but Discovery Channel has one: “Top 10 Animal exercises?” No. 1, Running, begins: “Do you have an exceptionally active dog with a high IQ?” How should I know? Wait. Is there a top 10 for that? I searched for “Top 10 dogs with high IQ” and easily found “The Top 10 Most Intelligent Dogs“.

In April 2009, my former employer eWeek sent me packing because I earned too much money (that’s exactly the reason given for the layoff). I wrote and edited two blogs: Apple Watch and Microsoft Watch. During my last month or so there, my boss pushed me to do more top-10 lists. I tried to reserve them for something topical or fun. February and March 2009 both had Friday the 13ths, so I posted “Microsoft’s 10 Unlucky Breaks” and followed up a month later with the “lucky breaks“. Their marginal editorial value: Giving many younger techies some historical perspective about the company cofound by Bill Gates.

About 19 months later, eWeek is a top-10 whore. Take a Google at this gaggle of top 10s for the past year. The most recent one, “Samsung Galaxy Tab Promises to Be Strong iPad Rival: 10 Reasons Why“—written by freelancer Don Reisinger and datestamped Nov. 11, 2010—offers some debate about top-10 lists. One commenter writes: “Does this Don Reisinger guy post anything other than ’10 reasons why’ stories? I mean, seriously, is he even a real person or is this some kind of bot autogenerating all of these cookie-cutter articles? I honestly can’t tell.” Another commenter responds: “‘Top 10’ lists have a remarkable power to draw people in; this one isn’t even at the bottom of the barrel.” I didn’t work with Don when at eWeek—don’t know who he is. From his bio, I understand that he is a freelancer—the kind replacing once-valued salaried writers. I would have linked to Don’s Website, but my browser barked: “Warning—visiting this Website may harm your computer!”

Okay, Okay. I’ll stay clear, and I mean writing top-10s, too. They’re the weeds of the Web, growing alongside more nutritious content and choking it from water, minerals and sunlight.

Back to Roger Ebert, he won’t be doing any seasonal themed lists—Halloween, Thanksgiving or Christmas—and plans none of the end-of-year best movies lists critics typically are expected to write. “No list of films has the slightest significance, unless it involves box-office receipts,” he gives as one reason. Oh yeah? Watch your back, Roger. If you don’t write the lists, studios will find someone else. For example, Paramount offers a “Create Your Own Top 10” widget.

Do you have a top-10 list story that you’d like told? Please email Joe Wilcox: joewilcox at gmail dot com.