As I was cruising my way through elementary education, my school, as most, had a monthly "book club" whereby a flyer was given to each student to take home and parents would then be pressured to buy a book or two for their child. Let's preclude an incoming argument by immediately saying that it's never a bad thing for a parent to buy books for their kids, but what I didn't realize, until long after, was the manipulation going on. The school was taking a cut on the backs of every book ordered and, to make it worse, the sales force behind pushing students to buy at least a book a month. It begs a larger question about fundraising for public education which I don't want to get into now, but, simply, for a school board to advertise and sell books to students to better their bottom line is disgraceful. Moral issues aside, perhaps the most anticipated publication that my friends and I scoured the order forms for, year after year, was the Book of Lists.
For some reason, there was a small group of us at least that loved to digest compartmentalized information under a simple heading and then debate, argue, and add our two cents worth. The Book of Lists contained relatively generic pop culture minutae like "Top Ten Bands with Two or More Guitarists" or "Top Science Fiction Films". All innocuous, but engrossing enough for a budding media cynic like myself to sink my teeth into. Many years later I find that not much has changed in terms of the attraction of lists. I do, however, with a much more critical (and cynical) eye examine not only the context of many lists, but often the motivation for the list itself.
Let's face it, lists are value statements, and the more generic the title at the top of the list, the more contentious and swirling the banter around the "accuracy" or "efficacy" of the contents. But I've, of course, left out the best part. The contention does not arise, for the most part, from unranked lists. [On the flipside the more specific the title, the less widespread contention, but likely the more intense debate among topic afficionados. If I put out a list called "Top Ten Debian Distros", 99.99% of the world won't give a damn, but the people who do will fight bitterly.] If, back in January 2008, I published an unranked list titled "Candidates for President of the United States", and listed John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney, not many people would have said much other than, "Congratulations! you watched CNN for five minutes." I could really stir up several people, however, if I reworked the list to say:
"Best Candidates for President of the United States"
1) John McCain
2) Mitt Romney
3) Hillary Clinton
4) Barack Obama
But where does the antagonism come from? A great deal of it certainly comes from disagreement, but that feeling gets intensified when a level of trust or respect is given to author of the list. If TIME magazine puts out a list that you disagree with, and you're a devoted reader of the publication, odds are you'
ll be far more upset that their values aren't reflected in yours. Much of the impact, however, comes from the surprise. No one bats an eye if someone on Fox News claims a Republican candidate would make the best president, but if they ever advanced the reverse position, sparks would fly.
The web is rife with lists of all kinds and it's often semantics that will turn a passing read of interest into a halting thought of "are you kidding?" If I put the word "my" before any list I publish, some people will read with interest, all will disagree with some aspect, and all will move on their marry way to the next thing. If I remove that subjective qualifier, things take a turn.
Consider the following titles for lists and think about which ones you'll be most ready to argue over with a friend or anonymous author:
My Favorite Bands
The Best Bands in the World
The Best Musicians in the World
Most Over-Rated Bands
Bands that Suck
If I'm pumping out any of these lists, no one's really going to care too much except maybe start to think of me as a more pompous than they do already. If a journalist for Rolling Stone, Spin, or Vibe puts out this list, more people start to react and take offense (let's face it, we're generally very defensive about our music preferences). If one of your favorite artists puts out a list that slams other artists you like, you notice. If an artist you've never liked before all of the sudden has a list that's almost identical to yours, you sit up and notice as well.
It almost always comes down to authority, and how much of it you grant the author. There are some times when I can genuinely say that I'm proud to have disagreed with a list completely. If Paris Hilton put out a list of "Bands That Suck", I think I would find some solace in my favorite bands occupying every spot.
And the value judgement that is implicit in a favorite band is no different than for a writer, a politician or a religion. Our lives are made up of choices based on subjective opinion that can often be maddeningly justified, or, even more infuriating, not justified at all. How many of us have had this discussion with a friend or family member?
"What could you like about this song?"
"I don't know. I just like it."
"I mean, don't you find the lyrics disturbing?"
"Oh, I don't listen to the lyrics. I just like the beat."
Our lives are based on lists. We itemize, rationalize, prioritize not only based on what we like, but sometimes even on what we think we should like. Lists can be halting and infuriating but they have an intrinsic value that is palpable. They are the quickest way to allow us to re-examine our values and beliefs. Such is the vanguard of learning. How many of us have gained through a friend's recommendation or even suggestions from online streaming music providers: "You said you liked this - you might like this too!" As much as differing forms of the list are often the greatest cause of conflict in society (try shouting out that my religion or politics are "better" than yours) we could not live without them. So while I often hate the results that come from lists, I love the lists themselves.