Mainstreaming Chaos

People love “Top” lists — Top 100 Movies of All Time, Top 100 Novels, 100 Most Powerful People, 100 Richest People, Billboard’s Top 100 Songs, Top Grossing Blockbusters…. In a mainstream culture, being in the “top” is something of an honor. On the web, there have been recent “Top” lists, too. Two in particular have received a lot of attention: the Technorati 100 and, more recently, the Feedster 500. I can see the appeal of these lists. For the surfer, top lists point to sites others find popular. For the blogger who makes the list, traffic can go up.

Yet there’s been a lot of criticism of these lists — and the ranking algorithms used by major search engines. For example, at the Blogher conference, which was inspired in part by a perceived invisibility of women bloggers, issue was taken with the Technorati 100 — a list of the “top 100” bloggers which happened to include only a very few women.

So far, the vast majority of the discussion has been about the algorithms these tracking sites use to come up with their rankings. But is this all there is to it? Algorithms? I submit that there’s a more fundamental, more basic problem with top website lists: they have a mainstreaming effect.

When we see a list of the top 100 grossing movies or the top 10 Nielsen-ranked TV shows, we’re seeing a ranking of what is essentially a limited list. While there are many excellent independent movies, what most people see are already in the mainstream. These top lists have limited mainstreaming effect because they’re prioritizing lists that already are mainstream. (And only recently have independent movies been starting to break out of their own mainstream, no longer beholden to “taste-makers” like Miramax or Fine Line to find an audience.)

Unlike movies or television, the internet offers virtually infinite variety of choices. And, unlike with movies or television, these choices are almost all produced independently of each other. There is no blogging hegemony dominating any “prime time.” There is no oligopoly holding the keys to the content gates. No, as a medium, the internet is practically chaos itself.

Of course, we make sense of it through hyperlinks. With so much chaos inherent in the internet, what with millions of voices and more being added even as you read this, there naturally are going to occur efforts to find or impose order. Most people simply don’t have the time or inclination to surf randomly and hope they find something not only interesting but also not malicious, hateful or offensive.

And so we use blogrolls to recommend other voices, and we put links in our posts referencing posts others have made elsewhere — and follow those links and blogrolls on other sites. (There’s been a sort of backlash against blogrolls, mainly for their stagnant nature. This deserves a post in itself. For now, I’ll just state my perspective that blogrolls exist because people use them. It’s just much much easier, and usually more fruitful, to follow recommended links rather than surf randomly.)

But what happens when centralized aggregators, trackers and search engines start announcing their “Top 100” or “Top 500”? These are not personal recommendations, but rather results of compilations of quantified personal recommendations. They are recommending populist recommendations.

In other words, they are attempting to mainstream the internet.

Inevitably, criticism of these lists tends to focus on how these lists and rankings are compiled: the algorithms. But is the “problem” of these lists and rankings simply in the algorithms applied? Shelly notes:

I was happy to read about the pushback against lists such as Technorati 100 that happened at BlogHer, but less than thrilled when this was, in my opinion, misconstrued as an “opportunity” to replace ranking indexes such as Technorati 100 with something better.

Can a new algorithm actually “fix” the “problems” with the existing top lists? Back to Shelley:

I don’t care for Technorati’s Top 100, because I see absolutely no value in it from a technological perspective, but much harm based on how the list is used to attach “authority” to certain webloggers.

I would place it in a broader context: The problem with top-whatever lists when it comes to the web is that these lists serve to mainstream what is, at its heart, a very non-mainstream medium.

It’s nice to think that, with the wide open web, the most popular blogs are the most deserving — the perfect meritocracy. It’s a line you’ll hear from many A-list bloggers who see the list as validation of their own worth and efforts. But this view ignores the mainstreaming effect. There comes a point where the popular blogger is popular to a great extent because he (or, very rarely, she) is considered popular. Get listed in the “Top 100” and the resulting traffic increase helps secure your place in the “Top 100,” which draws more traffic. And so it goes, with people moving in herds, treading over the same link paths over and over. And these “Top 100” endeavors end up tending to reflect themselves.

On our own sites, we see the same effect with our “Most Popular” blocks. People come to the site because of one post, and then see that something else has gotten a lot of attention, and so clicks on it to take a peek — thus increasing the popularity of the “most popular” posts. If a post makes it onto the most popular list, its traffic gets mainstreamed up.

You can’t get around mainstreaming, because that’s who we are as people. To be sure, there are many mainstreams — tech mainstreams, progressive mainstreams, conservative mainstreams, humor mainstreams, gadgetry mainstreams, cultural mainstreams, gender mainstreams — but we do tend to clump together.

Yet do these top lists in fact celebrate the web the way they do for movies or television?

The joy of the web, for me, is the vibrant vitality of the long tail, the myriad and multitudinous non-mainstream sites filled with wonderful writing, beautiful photography, heartbreaking stories, hilarious tales, and all the other wonderful things people create. Change the channel on the dish or cable, and you see yet another channel put out by the same 8 or 9 companies with the same kind of programming packaged in the same kind of way. But click on a link to a new website, and you’re discovering a new world.

If you want to explore the mysteries of the web, and experience the great diversity the internet has to offer, the Top 100 lists can’t take you there; they can only show you where not to look.