Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Debating the Merits of Most-Popular Lists...

Last week I performed some maintenance on this blog's template design - mostly just cosmetic tweaks, but I also added a new section on the right-side navigation bar, creating a "Most Popular Posts" section to highlight the best of The Nerfherder.

Apparently, the Wall Street Journal is stalking me. This morning, Carl Bialik has a fascinating article about the rising trend of websites creating "Most Popular" lists. He describes how these lists are proliferating everywhere in cyberspace, and argues that this isn't necessarily a positive development.

Are "Most-Popular" lists good or bad things? It depends on your perspective. Website developers tend to think they're wonderful because they keep visitors on their sites for longer amounts of time, reading more articles and thereby cultivating their brand and audience. However, some sociologists take a more critical view, noting how these lists create positive-feedback loops resulting from a type of peer pressure. One Princeton scholar, Matthew Salganik, observes that "deducing merit from popularity can lead to self-reinforcing snowballs of popularity, which can become decoupled from the underlying reality". It's essentially a form of peer pressure, like when a crowd gathers on the street to stare at a car accident; the larger the crowd, the more additional people will flock to see what they're seeing. As the Journal article points out, research has shown this to also be a significant problem early in the presidential election campaigns. The end-result is that the "most popular" news items are not necessarily those that are the best quality or the most important.

There's some definite truth to this idea, and, for evidence, one need look no further than see which "news" items are the most popular on Digg and Reddit. The data suggests that the vast majority of web surfers rarely glance at any news stories other than those which are already popular and found on the front page.

But so what? Ivy league scholars bemoaning the crass tastes of the public is hardly a new occurrence. People like what they like, even if that is influenced by what others are doing, and while, yes, it may be a travesty that Britney Spears articles are more popular than journalistic accounts of what's happening in Darfur, the best that a for-profit website can be expected to do is strike a balance between what's popular and what's important. In fact, the media has been struggling to strike that balance for decades. Nobody wants to run a high-school-style popularity contest, but no one wants to be C-SPAN either.

I, for one, plan to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. So while I'm going to keep this blog's "Most-Popular" section in existence, I'll also list a more newsworthy section, titled "Vital Posts", adjacent to it. The Nerfherder takes pride in being a beacon of actual thought amongst all of the cyber-sludge that is out there in the blogosphere, and regardless of the quest for eyeballs and website traffic, you won't find Britney Spears too prominent here anytime soon.


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