Human Experience, Ranked

The internet is stuffed with rankings, especially at year’s end. It doesn’t have to be like this.

Simon Montag

In 2006, Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska attempted to explain the internet to the Senate as a “series of tubes.” He was talking about regulations for internet service providers, but the phrase quickly escaped its context to become one of the most enduring memes of early social media. More than a decade later, it’s time to reconsider the web’s building blocks. The internet can now be more accurately described as a series of lists, enumerating everything from the United States’ worst airports to the most beloved grocery stores.

As both the year and the decade come to a close, one type of list has grown more powerful and abundant online than all others: the ranking. Recent entrants to the field include the 10 least caring cities in the United States in 2019, ranked. Every character in The Mandalorian, ranked. Recent boot trends, ranked. Each year in music of the 2010s, ranked. Whether they’re of movies, memes, or “moments,” rankings go one step beyond simple aggregational power. At their best, they create a hierarchy for particularly avid fans to evaluate their own tastes, and give critics space to propose which ideas might prove important to future generations.

Unfortunately, the internet never stops when things are still at their best. Rankings have been off the rails for years, listing the comparative advantages of things with no real reason to be presented that way, or by people with no particular reason to be arranging them. In the attempt to tie up a decade with a pretty red bow, the web has buried itself under an avalanche of best- and worst-ofs, asking readers to judge virtually everything they interact with.

Lists—of bests, worsts, most important, most popular, funniest, or favorites—have long been a perfect unit of media, embraced by everyone from ’70s radio disc jockeys like Casey Kasem to legendary art critics like Jerry Saltz. They bring order to almost every corner of the universe, from the hottest songs in pop music to the essential developments in a global news story. In the early 2010s, BuzzFeed’s success, built on a foundation of fun, easily digestible “listicles” about cute pets and viral stories, helped cement lists as part of the internet’s basic information framework. Most publications produce some kind of rankings now. (Including, yes, The Atlantic.)

It’s not that writers universally adore expressing themselves via ranking. People often enthusiastically read and share hierarchies that they love or hate. Those emotional responses are based, at least in part, on lists’ natural utility as a bulwark against the internet’s constant information overload. “[They’re] something you can rely on in order to make good-enough decisions without having to reason through every fact every time,” said Jessica Love, a psycholinguist at Northwestern University, in a 2017 podcast on the internet’s love of lists.

From breakdowns of the most effective hair dryers to reflections on a decade’s most consequential pieces of art, lists help people make shortcut decisions on where to go, what to eat, and which thing to buy among a million inscrutable choices. Culture rankings can be great for finding things you missed or forgot amid the daily deluge of information online, or in seeing how your tastes align with experts’. Many of the rest seem like an effort to cause low-stakes trouble, such as baiting people to fight over the correct ordering of fast-food chicken tenders on Facebook or Twitter. (If lists are one of the essential pieces of the contemporary internet, then arguments are the mortar that holds the whole thing together.)

Just because people’s brains like lists, however, doesn’t mean they’re always the best way to decide what to pursue and what to skip. Many rankings are done for broad evaluation, not to guide individual consumption. “Even an expertly assembled list lacks the kind of nuance needed to sum up 10 years of close listening, which should theoretically be the End of Decade list’s goal,” the music critic Marty Sartini Garner wrote in a recent meta-criticism of 2010s album rankings. “Nobody actually listens to music this way, preoccupied with how the current album rates relative to the other albums you happen to have listened to recently; why suddenly adopt this posture just because the decade is ending?”

That’s the real problem with rankings. They often misunderstand enjoyment as a rubric for determining a thing’s ultimate worth, instead of emphasizing the value of joy itself. Order and organization are necessary in any act of distillation, but they tend to flatten the experience of trying a new restaurant or catching a delightful movie on a weeknight whim into boxes to be checked at the end of a year or decade. While that might be a perfectly reasonable step in the work of evaluation for critics, it’s a tool ripe for misuse in America’s current cultural climate—one of data analysis, relentless optimization, and the expectation that even activities like personal hygiene and sleep will be measured, recorded, and tweaked for maximum productivity. If it’s not immediately clear if you’ve visited your city’s five best new restaurants of the year, can you even call yourself a foodie in your Tinder bio?

But that context of constant self-measurement is what internet rankings spin out of control. It’s hard to imagine Vulture’s ranking of more than 5,000 movies released during the 2010s, no matter how well considered by its authors, as a product of any era in which the collection and scrutiny of data isn’t a de facto sign of quality. Rankings, at their basest level, let you know where your favorite things stand. For plenty of people, that’s reflective of where they stand as a person.

This impulse toward evaluation is why some people lose their grip on reality over perceived slights to Marvel movies. It’s also why Spotify Wrapped, the streaming service’s release of users’ personal year-end reviews, goes viral on Twitter every December—an individualized ranking mediated by an algorithm, meant to compare and contrast the strength and efficiency of one’s fandoms with friends. On the internet, rankings have a way of deputizing everyone into the service of their favorite stuff, pledging their free labor to ensure proper respect is paid to their preferred pop star or corporate franchise or chicken finger.

The only good thing about working for free, though, is that you can stop doing it without dinging your credit score. You can simply like or dislike a particular movie or meme or fast-food chicken tender. You don’t have to convince yourself that what you enjoy must be profound art or the pinnacle of, like, all grocery-shopping experiences. You can love things that are merely fine, be unmoved by greatness, and feel no obligation to justify those preferences to your co-worker who never stops talking about Star Wars and Wegmans.

Understanding what matters and why in a culture is important, but going through life attempting to optimize your personal tastes and preferences to some faux-objective idea of “best” or “most important” is not. You won’t be docked any points. You are just a person, and no one is keeping score.

That being said, for my money, Parasite was the best movie of 2019.