The Problem with Being 11th

Nick Bilton writes about an issue that’s been troubling me for a few months: the meretricious “top 10″ lists populating culture sites and content aggregators. (I recommend reading the article. Then come back. …Back? Ok.)

If you’ve developed iOS apps you know how helpful the “New & Noteworthy” and “Staff Favorites” sections are. Last year our Journey to the Exoplanets iPad app was chosen for “New & Noteworthy” and immediately experienced a significant sales bump, rocketing to #1 in its category.

We were thrilled, naturally, and also made aware of just how few marketing channels there are for apps.

(Interestingly, app reviewers didn’t respond to us until we received this imprimatur from Apple. My book publishing colleagues will recognize this as something of a reversal, as if the Times only reviewed books after they hit the bestseller list.)

The web’s emphasis on list-making has been well documented on the content side. Mashable‘s entire M.O. is to present content as numbered lists (preferably odd numbers). Or should I say, in their article “The Top 7 Ways for Mashable to Present Content,” list-making is #1. They admitted as much in a tongue-in-cheek article a few years back where they outlined how their writers gamed the system.

And sites like Flavorwire thrive on such lists. But if we zoom out, a self-reinforcing feedback loop emerges in both content and downloads: articles in the Most Viewed category tend to stay there, and as Bilton notes with iTunes, there’s a big gap between being tenth and eleventh.

Not only are we in a popularity contest. We are in a popularity contest in a hall of mirrors.

-Nick Bilton

From the perspective of a healthy media diet, this can be worrisome. (The Filter Bubble and all that.) It also sounds reminiscent of the old days of broadcast television. When there were only a handful of TV channels, your product by default captured a healthy market share. Clay Shirky has pointed out this also meant your show didn’t have to be terribly good, just on.

I wonder if our current web infrastructure is simply a new version of this same problem. We’ve moved into the adolescent stage of the internet: the novelty of “all information, all the time” is gone, replaced by the growing influence and importance of curators. (Compare Maria Popova fifteen years ago to today.)

There isn’t a monolithic “Big Three” of TV networks anymore. But Top 10 culture does echo its sentiment of easy and populist content over more individually relevant fare.

As you can tell, it’s a complex topic, and many content sites circumvent it by emphasizing editorial over Most Viewed algorithms. (I’d cite Longreads here, or even Valet Mag.) What do you think?

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