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?