What’s valuable? Top 10 lists
July 18, 2010
Ratings and rankings have received considerable attention here at Socializing Finance, whether it be in the FICO score or in bond ratings that read like some cumulative grade point average (AAA, AA+ AA, AA-, A+, A, A-, BBB+, BBB, B, and so on). In this post, I want to examine a phenomenon that takes ratings and rankings to their logical absurdity – the proliferation of Top 10 lists. The object is frivolous; but the growth of consumer ratings is not. They offer a wealth of data on the practice of valuation – an alternative metric for assessing what’s valuable.
As a Google search will quickly reveal, there are Top 10 lists of everything, including the Top 10 stupidest Top 10 lists. Entire sites are devoted to the genre: TopTenz.net, for example, has thousands of lists organized according to 15 categories, with drop-down menus revealing dozens of subcategories. (But there’s room for more: I was disappointed when I searched the site and didn’t find a Top 10 list of quotes from the Yankee philosopher Yogi Berra.)
Although it has a long pedigree – think of Moses’ list of the Top Ten prohibitions – in its current form the genre probably found its impetus in the 1950s when the standard jukebox held 40 singles. Out of this emerged Top 40 radio programming with the notion of a Top 40 list, later refined in the 1970s in the cloying voice of Casey Kasem’s weekly countdown, defining what would be played on popular music radio – with lucrative results for the major record labels. David Letterman’s nightly Top 10 lists echo Kasem’s countdown, even as his deadpan reading mocks the very project of the genre.
Top 10 lists are frivolous; yet their very ubiquity invites a moment of reflection. Taking them (not too) seriously, requires understanding the humorous component of the genre. Parody is most effective when it gets under our skin to jab at a social practice in which we are complicit. Who has not resulted to a favorite critic’s list of the Top 10 best movies of the past year when one couldn’t decide on a film to rent? Or never taken into account a wine’s ratings when choosing a bottle to take to a dinner party? Or consulted an online guide of users’ ratings when choosing a hotel, restaurant, vacation package, software program, or new electronic gadget? Which is the PhD applicant, dean, or department chair who never perused the rankings of graduate programs?
And so we laugh because we laugh at our partial dependence on lists of ratings and rankings to navigate the uncertainties of finding what’s valuable in the overly abundant world of consumer choices.
We laugh also because, when the humorous genre works best, it does so by exposing a mixture of assessment criteria so ad hoc and absurd as to defy all rhyme or reason in the selection principle whereby any element on the list was “ranked” as higher or lower than any other. Such ironic lists thus evoke an unsettling sense that many of the rankings and ratings that we (along with our deans, our creditors, and our regulatory agencies) use are organized on an ordinal scale but were cobbled together from disparate and incommensurable principles of evaluation.
Most Top Ten lists, however, are not ironic. What is immediately striking is how many are deadly earnest. John Dewey is insightful at this juncture. In his Theory of Valuation (University of Chicago Press,1939), Dewey distiguishes appraisal and prizing:
The double meaning is significant because there is implicit in it one of the basic issues regarding valuation. For in prizing, emphasis falls upon something having definite personal reference, which, like all activities of distinctively personal reference, has an aspectual quality called emotional.
Prizing, Dewey notes, has an emotional quality with a definite personal reference. This is exactly what one sees in the emphatically non-ironic and non-expert Top Ten lists that are awash on social networking sites. “If expert critics and juries can award prizes, so can I,” they seem to exclaim. Here’s my list, the objects I prize, and the reasons for this decidedly personal attachment.
Dewey then goes on to contrast the affectual moment of prizing with the intellectual moment characteristic of appraisal:
Valuation as appraisal, however, is primarily concerned with a relational property of objects so that an intellectual aspect is uppermost of the same general sort that is found in ‘estimate’ as distinguished from the personal-emotional word ‘esteem.’ That the same verb is employed in both senses suggests the problem upon which schools are divided in the present time. Which of the two references is basic in its implications? Are the two activities separate or are they complementary?
The move is typical of Dewey. Just when we think we have grasped the analytic separation of the emotional and the intellectual – as with the too-quick parsing of means and ends – he invites us to wonder “are they separate or are they complimentary?”
Dewey’s query is a fruitful insight for the sociological investigation of what’s valuable. On-line ratings and rankings by consumers now provide new sources of data on prizing and appraising – new means to register value judgments in the economy. Personal Top Ten lists are but the tip of the iceberg of a vast digital repository, much of it time-stamped data. Whereas economists have long had time sensitive data on price movements, we now (or will soon) have alternative (not separate but complimentary) data bases on the movements of prizing and appraising that register consumer attachments. These “valuemeters” will need new measures and metrics (Latour and Lepinay 2009: 16). They can be quantified, but these metrics of personal value judgments need not be expressed in terms of money. In fact, we will need to avoid the quick temptation to assess how prizing and appraising translate to pricing. That is the work for corporate (and start up) research departments. The task for economic sociology (and for the field of critical accounting) will be to develop new metrics of what’s valuable (the prizings and appraisings that give us access to value judgments) – valuable precisely because they are metrics that are alternatives to prices.