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.

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22 Responses to “What’s valuable? Top 10 lists”

  1. danielbeunza Says:

    Fascinating. I get the point: a list is not a price, and the difference should be exploited rather than flattened. I like the idea of profiting the top ten lists, but I don’t see why sociologists should leave it to non-academics. That is, after all, how quantitative finance grew to be what it is — through start-ups by academics.

    So here’s what I would do. Sociologists of marketing in the Europe have been tracking hits on blogs and twitter to appraise the standing of a brand. This of course is very superficial. Ignoring the content of posts and tweets misses the key issues that change brand value — but it’s cheap and quantifiable.

    Lists offer a way to get around that. A list “top ten demonized companies in the Gulf” gives the issue at hand. Assuming one could appraise the impact of a top ten list (presumably some are more read than others), one could visualize the relative standing of a company through these lists.

    • dstark Says:

      Thanks, Daniel. As a first-timer at Socializing Finance, I was a bit worried that my post would be greeted by comments suggesting the Top Ten reasons why it’s stupid to even think about Top Ten lists. I like your suggestion, first because it points to parallels in quantitative finance and second because it already begins to think about concrete steps to mobilize the ideas. Very much in the spirit of my post.

  2. joseossandon Says:

    Hi David, Dewey’s concepts seems to be amazingly useful to grasp rankings. However, I think there might be an important continuity between lists and prices. The utilitarian aspect of marginal economics seems to assume that prices gain their objectivity, not because they are essentially detached, but because they are an average of many (potentially incommensurable) personal valuations (see Simmel for a much nicer discussion of the same idea). In the same way, personal lists are also gaining objectivity through their compilation (think for instance in http://www.rottentomatoes.com tomatemeter that “measures the percentage of positive reviews from approved critics for a certain movie”). In this sense, ratings and prices combine both an absolutely personal judgment and the possibility of being added in a colder average. The nice thing is that today (and this is developed by Latour and Lepinay in their Tarde book) we don’t have to choose whether we follow subjective evaluation (like phenomenological micro-sociology) or objective averages (like classical quantitative survey sociology), but we can focus our attention on tracing the connections between personal/numbers/and averages. And, perhaps, this is not just an agenda for the sociology of ratings, but also might be a form to grasp prices in a better way. This, rather than Tardian, could be how a contemporary Simmelian economic sociology might look.

    • dstark Says:

      Thanks, Jose. I’ve been following your comments for awhile on Socializing Finance and find that you always bring strong insights to any problem.

      I would not immediately disagree that there are continuities (indeed similarities) between the practices of prices and those of ratings. But I would need to give this considerably more thought. In the meantime, I’ll repeat my warning, cautioning against research that is too quickly directed to analyzing the causal relationships between prices and consumer ratings. Because you were drawing analogies rather than making direct linkages, I don’t sense this confusion on your part, but just want to clarify it again.

      I appreciate your remarks about personal judgments and colder averages (here, like Daniel’s comment, very much in tune with the spirit of my initial post). More to the point, I’m fascinated by your distinction between a Tardian and a Simmelian approach to these questions and would be delighted to hear it further elaborated.

  3. yuvalmillo Says:

    David, thanks for the post! I agree with your reading of Dewey completely, but I think that you are slightly under-utilizing, sort of speak, the potential of the argument. The insight that the boundary between prizes and appraisals is blurred, as Dewey implies, masks the political dimension inherent to appraisals. Put simply, as soon as someone, a person or an institution, persuades others that its valuations are actually appraisals then that someone succeeded in de-personalizing the valuations and paved the road, in effect, for them to be recognized as objective accounts. For this reason, the shifting and contested boundary between prizes and appraisals is not so by chance, but instead there are forces that maintain it in such a liminal state. Why? Because this situation makes it easier for them to cross stealthily the line between the subjective prize and the objective appraisal and yes, it’s nothing personal ;-)

    • dstark Says:

      Yuval, thanks for the opportunity to post here on this terrific blog. I don’t imagine that I will rack up a lot of frequent blogger miles (you do have such a program, right?), but it’s good to know that there is an opportunity for getting high quality feedback.

      I agree that the constructed boundary between what we might gesture to as ‘certifiably objective’ and the ‘merely subjective’ is political. But I wonder if you would agree that this is not the same thing as saying that an action of valuation is objective or subjective. I take it from your comments that you would agree. But do correct me if I’ve misunderstood.

      Fabian Muniesa has a wonderful paper on this problem, “A Flank Movement in the Understanding of Valuation,” being prepared for a Special Issue for The Sociological Review on “Measure and Value.” I’d look forward to hearing his thoughts on this thread.

      • fabianmuniesa Says:

        Thanks David! I will try to come up with something bloggable about Dewey’s “flank movement” when I’ll have a minute.

  4. Shell Says:


    This is Shell from Toptenz and I would love to see a top 10 quote list from Yogi Berra, especially if you can give background to each quote. Consider yourself invited to write.


    • dstark Says:

      Shell, I’m sure that the organizers of this blog are fascinated to learn that it is being monitored by you (or your company’s algorithm). I can’t speak for them, but I don’t think they would upset if they learned that their blog has appeared at the top of your list of Top Ten blogs on the study of finance.

      Seriously, as you can see from these threads, there is real interest in companies such as TopTenz.net. I for one would be interested in learning more about how you come up with the topics of your lists and, especially, about the proportion of lists that are generated or actually written by your users. We could have that conversation here or, if you prefer, we could have it through email. My address: dcs36@columbia.edu I look forward to continuing the conversation.

      • Dell Atlas Says:

        I replied to your email and welcome any other questions. I’ll answer what you have asked here.

        In the beginning (2 years ago) I created a list of about 50 top 10 lists I would like to see. Some got written and others weren’t that interesting on further evaluation. Now I let the writers suggest a topic and they write the list. It is 100% up to the writer. I feel this makes better lists since it is their idea and they are interested in researching it.

        I do occasionally ask some of the writers who I have relationships with to write specific lists out of my own interest or if the topic is relevant for that point in time.

        I have written a very small percentage of lists. In the beginning I was writing 30% of them. Out of the over 400 lists on the site I have maybe written 20 lists. Maybe less.

        Writers tend to write for a while and then move on. Very few write on a consistent basis and even those usually only do 1 or 2 per month. Burn out is easy, I think. In fact, I just sent an ad looking for more writers and have about 30 to evaluate this weekend. Believe it or not I do this in my spare time. I am the owner of a SEO company, http://www.bigoakinc.com as my full-time job.

        Thanks for the questions and for the time.

  5. PE Says:

    It’s interesting to observe the effect of these rankings on those who are being ranked. The ranking methodology becomes a battleground. SEO (search engine optimisation) has become an industry in its own right, trying to figure out Google’s algorithm and advise e-commerce businesses on how to move up the Google search result rankings. Or consider internal university polices drawn up to improve in the various university rankings. The transparency of the methodology seems to be a core issue. In the Google case the methodology is not very transparent and it is changed regularly, turning the whole thing into a cat-and-mouse game between Google and those being ranked. While the transparent criteria of some university rankings allow for some very instrumental policies to achieve a better ranking.

  6. Gina Neff Says:

    Top 10 and other such lists are a relatively recent phenomenon in creating “lifestyle” oriented consumption. Sharon Zukin covers them in a chapter on consumer guides in Point of Purchase. Rather than frivolous, they show a tremendous amount of power in educating consumers on how they “should” be spending their money and now have become intertwined with how we mediate our lives. Interesting post!

  7. dstark Says:

    Gina, When I was writing this post, I almost included a sentence to the effect that the social history of Top 10 lists remains to be written. The chapter in Sharon’s book sounds like it could be a candidate for such. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  8. [...] to find just the right words or examples to get started. It follows on the theme of David’s excellent post on top ten lists, as well as the general line of discussion on this and other blogs of rankings, [...]

  9. Cultural industries driven partly by rankings seem to be turning to newer metrics that incorporate a better “mixture of assessment criteria.” The NY Times piece below discusses Ultimate Chart, a new pop music ranking that has emerged to challenge Billboard by taking into account social media connections, digital record sales, and online video views.


    Another interesting “valuemeter” is famecount.com, which aggregates Facebook, Twitter and YouTube data every 24 hours to create lists of the world’s most popular people.

    P.S., As a kid I remember having to memorize not only Moses’s Top 10, but also the 8 Beatitudes, the 7 Deadly Sins, the 7 Virtues, etc.: ancient yet enduring techniques for trying to prescribe and proscribe human behavior.

    • dstark Says:

      Victor, Thanks for the link to the NY Times piece. Famecount and Ultimate Count are very interesting examples of new metrics.

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  12. Ho Says:

    Society simply needs to measure everything and rankings can aid in measuring the immeasurable. It also gives the to-be-ranked a unique selling proposition and pride when they excel in the rankings game.

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