Monday, January 14, 2008

Top 10 lists

It seems to me that everyone loves ranking lists. Top 10s, Top 20s, Top 100s and why, even Top 1000s. Almost everyone uses them at one point or the other to determine their choice in regards to various things, be it movies, colleges, books, holiday getaways, digital cameras or gift shops.. This seems like natural thing to do when you are looking for some guidance and there is a sea of options in front of you. I do agree that when it comes to products and consumer goods, it may be good idea to use these rankings but however, I believe it is incorrect to apply it to judge something like art, individual careers, relative accomplishments and other more subtle aspects in life.

Take the example of rankings of music artists or records. While drawing up comparisons and distinctions between two musical works can be an interesting, instructive and meaningful exercise , the need to always rigidly rate one above the other occurs to me as being quite unnatural. Why assume that two separate creations, each to be viewed in its own context, possessing different merits, dealing with disparate subject matter, can be placed one below the other on some linear scale? The experience one derives from two sources can vary greatly and stimulate different responses. After all it is not like our brain functions though a single neuron with different intensities. Why then are so many obsessed with finding out what is the best when no such thing is well-defined? The idea that this is always possible has an effect both on the individual who compiles the list and those that depend on them. For the former, the motivation to make a list will lead him/her to forcibly make value judgements based on a ill-defined and arbitrary criteria. And for the latter, especially the one who seeks such Top 10's , the mere fact that there are ranks rigidly setting two things apart can give rise to false assumption on their relative worth. For example, consider a ranking of Top 100 movies of all time. It is very likely that the precise rankings would significantly depend on the time and mood of the individual(s) involved in deciding those ratings, and for someone going through the list, the movie listed at the top would be assumed to be much better than the last entry when in fact, the distinction may be far less considering how selective a list of 100 movies in history of cinema is.

Another problem I have with Top 10s is about the constancy of the total number in all editions. I mean, why should it always be Top 10 and not Top 13 or a Top 7 ? . What is the index of deciding whether some contender should be included in the list (besides the space constraints)? Is it the consistency in the total number of slots or consistency in quality of the choices made? The moment you see such a Top 10 list , a certain quality is always assumed right at the outset and that can be a terrible mistake. When a newspaper lists the important events in the previous year, why not include whatever the editor deems significant (again, due considerations given to available space) irrespective of whether it 11 or 9? The Time magazine has come up with best of 2007 under different categories and each of them of course is one of either Top 10, 50 or 100. When you first see such a set, you are likely to think that the 10th place in the television shows is just as good (or mediocre) as the counterpart in theater productions. Of course, that need not ever be the case. In their defence, it can be argued that these lists cater to audiences with different preferences and so cross comparisons are not taken into account. But I still believe it is necessary for a magazine with the reputation and global reach of Time to give readers the editorial choice of what is significant and worthwhile rather than trying to fill up some fixed column numbers. It is very much possible that entries in one category was far superior than the other in a given year and in those instances it would be more intelligent to provide it greater coverage than to insist on some ill-conceived 'democratic' idea of satisfying the lowest common denominator with equal representation.

That said, as I have stated earlier, there are several occasions when such lists come very handy. Staying on the same topics as books, if you have recently begun to read novels, looking up some Top 100 list will give you an idea of the supposed classics and can guide initial selections. Also, I believe it is important to draw distinctions between two works which are of unequal standards. How else can one assess quality if one is not allowed to make any judgement. What I find artificial is the necessity for absolute rankings. It is also fine if you are making assorted recommendations but the obsessive need to put them in order is unwise.

When the AFI made the list of Top 100 movies (which included all the usual suspects of course), one critic made a very pertinent point that it would have been so much more rewarding for the fans and the industry to have come up with a suggestion of 100 great films that were forgotten or went unnoticed and made an analysis of them and argued why they deserve a second viewing. Instead, the AFI not only made everyone complacent by placing their favorite choices but also made several secondary lists on silly categories like 100 villains, 100 thrills, 100 laughs and so on ... Neither AFI nor Time are exceptions in not realizing that what is important is to introduce people to things to significant things they don't know instead of creating a unnatural competition of things they do know. This seems to be a ingrained in everyone's consciousness and reinforced by the media-culture.

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