Lists and Being On Them

Hey, NowPublic made a list of the 50 most influential web people in New York, and I’m on it at number six. So, thanks to the folks who made the list, and I appreciate the recognition.

NowPublic However, every time a similar list comes out, I have a number of responses that immediately come to mind, and most of my friends who have to suffer through my ranting reply with some variation of “You’re just complaining because you’re not on the list!”

But this time, I am on the list. Which means it’s a chance to talk about the reasons, good and bad, why these sorts of lists exist, and what purpose they can serve.

Update: Apparently, I’m on the TechCult Top 100 Web Celebrities list, too. Which appears to be even more blatantly link-baiting, though again, the company I’m keeping there is nice.

First and foremost, organizations (whether they’re websites, media organizations, publishers, individuals, institutions, whatever) create these lists to solidify their power and influence, and to promote their own authority. This generally works, with the most exceptional examples like Time’s Person of the Year actually acting to amplify the publication’s own profile. With that kind of success, it’s easy to understand how Time decided to also create a Time 100 list as well.

For less-known organizations, like NowPublic, having a list like this acts as a phenomenal engine of promotion. People who have a high profile are generally well-known, at least in part, because they put an effort into being well-known. Therefore, putting their name on a list is an extremely effective way to get their attention. On the web, we call this link-baiting, but offline, it’s simply called flattery.

These types of lists can be useful. One of the earliest and most fundamental milestones in the formation of a community is the desire for certain members to recognize those that (appear to) exemplify the values that the community aspires to, or would like to be identified by. Similarly, promoting unsung or less-known members of a community can be a useful method of indicating a desire for a community’s values to evolve.

Lists are different from awards. Everybody on them is a winner, of sorts, so there’s very little sense of bitterness between people on the list. Similarly, having a large number of people be recognized increases the aspirational value for those who aren’t on the list — it’s easy to pick someone on a lengthy list who seems undeserving.

Creating this kind of content is perfect for the lazy days of summer. Fondly referred to in the publishing industry as “listicles”, assembling faux-scientific methods of cataloging potential list members is a perfect task for interns. Here in New York, all of our local media editors traipse off to the Hamptons to sit out the sweltering days of July or August, and by amazing coincidence, much of local media publishes their “Best Of” articles around the same time. It’s a credit to NowPublic that they’ve decided, interestingly, to publish the methodology for calculating influence.

Pointing out these structural circumstances which occasion the creation of such lists doesn’t mean that they’re not still flattering and appreciated. It’s nice to see your name on something. One of NowPublic’s stated criteria for evaluation is accessibility, and as someone who’s had his mobile phone number sitting on the side of his website for years, I am happy to see that’s a factor in evaluating influence.

There are, of course, some lists which are really important. Such as the Top 10 Boy Bloggers We’d Let Rub Our Touchpads. Congratulations to Nick Denton and Jason Kottke for being the only guys who are on both the NowPublic list and on this more esteemed accounting.

Thanks again to NowPublic for the recognition, and congratulations to the many friends and acquaintances of mine on the list. With only one exception, it’s fantastic company to be part of and I can’t wait to see who they pick in other cities and in New York next year.