f/k/a . . . the archives

November 30, 2007

“best of” lists: the unbearable truth bared

Filed under: Haiku or Senryu,viewpoint — David Giacalone @ 2:03 pm

In the wake of the controversy (see, e.g., Kevin O’Keefe, Eric Turkewitz, David Gottlieb, and Carolyn Elefant) created by the recently-announced “ABA Journal Blawg 100” list of the “best web sites by lawyers, for lawyers” (featured in our prior post), and just in case you’re too dull-witted or naive to have figured it out, I thought I’d provide a quick list of things to keep in mind when you encounter a best-of list created by a newspaper, magazine, or other publication, or any website, or produced by either a for-profit or nonprofit organization or interest group:

  • virtually no one puts together a “best of” list merely because a bunch of people really deserve to have their efforts or abilities honored
  • the List-Maker ["Lister"] has an ulterior motive for the compilation, usually to garner attention for itself or him/herself, in order to create more of whatever it needs to achieve corporate or personal goals (such as, making income, swaying opinion, raising money, getting dates, etc.)

losing the contest
I discover
the lord’s mum won

…………………………….…… by Kobayashi Issa, translated by David G. Lanoue

  • therefore, a publication or website is surely trying, with its Best Of List, to get more readers, by attracting individuals especially interested in the topic covered by the list, getting coverage in other media, getting lots of word-of-mouth referrals (and, eventually, getting more advertisers, and hopefully an audience for the next edition of its List)
  • human nature being what it is, the Lister especially expects the Honorees on the Best of List to tell as many people as possible about the great Honor and to refer/point others to the source of the List
  • because the staff compiling a list, especially if merely human, has only limited knowledge about the universe of actors, and because the Lister has its own ulterior motives and related perspective, it is very likely that the list will be both under-inclusive and over-inclusive if your actual standard is excellence and worthiness
  • it is even more certain that those not selected (and their kith and kin, or friends and fans) will be miffed, irked, insulted about failing to make the list and that those who complain the most in public have their own motives for doing so
  • people with “niche” or specialized interests, or who dwell in tiny demographic categories or market segments, often feel left out of global, generalist Best of Lists — as Honorees, fans, and consumers (and they need to get over it)

the best New Year’s
present!
her pink cheeks

…………………… by Kobayashi Issa, translated by David G. Lanoue

  • it’s always very difficult to decide how large to make a Best of List. [In "When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?," George Carlin, remarks on the strange popularity of the number ten, and winnows the Commandments down to just two (be honest, be loyal).] If the List is too small, the Lister doesn’t get enough built-in Honoree Goodwill, and runs the risk of insulting someone powerful and important within its sphere of interest.
  • If the List is too big, getting the honor is not as valuable, and — more important — the utility of the list plummets, as it’s no longer an easy tool for finding high-quality Listees and fails to eliminate the transaction costs of searching (which is an actual important side-effect of Best Of Lists).

In early October, when expected to come up with a Ten-Best-Blawg list of my own, your humble f/k/a editor lamented, opined and confessed:

Purporting to choose the “best blawgs” is especially difficult and misleading because (very much like choosing the “best” poem in a haiku contest), what you’re really doing is revealing your particular preferences and predilections (”favorites and friends”?) and — unless you happen to be Ed at Blawg Reivew or Bob Ambrogi, who regularly peruse hundreds of weblogs — demonstrating the very limited scope of your normal blawg-surfing habits.

Given the above “truths” about Best of Lists, it should surprise no one that the ABA Journal:

  1. probably created its Blawg 100 list mostly to do what every publicly-issued, bottomline-oriented publication wants to do: get attention for itself and more readers (and, thus, eventually be able to charge more for online and in-print advertising)
  2. was successful in motivating Honorees to spread the word
  3. focused on weblogs that — as it explicitly touts — are “for lawyers” rather than for clients and other humanoids
  4. tended to include topics/segments within the profession that are of greatest interest to ABA leaders and potential advertisers (and even the poor staffers who got stuck with the thankless job), and exclude those — like family law and personal injury law — that for some reason are not of foremost interest to bar leaders and likely advertisers

Of course, there are many, many blawgs that did not make the ABA Journal Blawg 100 that are well-worth the attention of the general public, the legal profession, and especially the narrowly-focused seeker of legal information (which might be why the ABA Journal‘s Blawg Directory includes thousands of weblogs in about 80 categories). No Best of List is immaculately conceived and none will ever be miraculously perceived as perfectly executed nor universally acclaimed.

p.s. It goes without saying, here at the home of Prof. Yabut and skepticalEsq, that the entire notion of an online voting competition for “best” or “favorite” weblog in particular categories is statistically meaningless and, in general — to use a little legal jargon — silly as hell. If you’ve read this posting, you will be able to figure out a few of the reasons why the ABA Journal decided to hold the contest anyway.

worm-eaten–
the best chestnut!
the best!

spring rain–
better than the flowers of others
my little thicket

…………………… by Kobayashi Issa, translated by David G. Lanoue

. afterthought (7 PM, est): Speaking of Blawg 100 Honorees and the related Popularity Contest: Have you noticed that almost all of the blawggers (but, thankfully, not Ernie nor “Ed“, or even our show-boating Prof. Yabut) have chosen to display a “badge” designed by the ABA Journal that says “Vote for this Blog“? (Indeed, some are using a really big version of that message.) You might be surprised to know, therefore, that we all had the option to post a badge saying “Vote for your favorites.” Now, I don’t want to be judgmental, ’cause I’ve long advocated allowing lawyers to be tacky despite the profession’s image problems. But, I wonder what the chosen badge says about the needs and creeds of the lawyer-weblogger.

better than me
at long distance!
the fart bug

…………………… by Kobayashi Issa, translated by David G. Lanoue

afterthought/afterlife (Dec. 3, 2007): Speaking of lists and controversy, Blawg Review #137 is up at the oft-entertaining and insightful Infamy or Praise weblog.  Unfortunately, by completing his Dante-themed Blawg Review trilogy and thus focusing #137 on the Divine Comedy‘s third cantica, Paradiso, Colin Samuels (who led me into temptation regarding Purgatory a year ago) has again taxed my patience and consumed far too much of my blawg-surfing time this morning. (If you like that sort of artsy-pretentious thing, or are enjoying a Snow Day and have plenty of time to kill, I guess you’ll have a divine experience, but it has confirmed my beliefs both about the disutility of themed-blawg-reviews — they are often “annoying, strained and distracting” — and about the tediousness of spending eternity in Paradise.)

his quiet funeral—
a man who did
most of the talking

……………….. by barry george – from frogpond XXVIII: 1

The only redeeming element of Blawg Review #137 is that it comes in the form of written words (rather than a podcast), so that I easily could skip and skim the excess verbiage, such as Dante quotes and parody verse, and find the highlighted hyperlinks to deserving recent blawg postings (such RiskProf’s look at Risk and Race, questioning the application of Civil-Rights-Act disparate impact analysis in the context of credit scoring).

father’s eulogy…
it’s not the first commandment
i’ve shattered

. . . . . …………….. . . by ed markowski

Colin did note that f/k/a is one of only three weblogs to be featured in each of his Blawg Reviews. Thanks, CS, the check’s in the mail. On the other hand, his reference today to this very post about Best of Lists, states that “David Giacalone of the f/k/a blog was somewhat dubious about the value of the ABA’s list. He questions the magazine’s motives. . .” I don’t think I’ve questioned the value of Blawg100, nor denigrated the ABA Journal‘s motives. I’ve merely pointed out the probable motives, to help readers avoid the expectation of perfection and decide for themselves on its value. Like Anne Reed, quoted at Blawg Review #137, I think that “whatever the effort’s weaknesses, some good will come of it.”

Colin, you’ve done your penance (and hopefully learned your lesson), and I look forward to a more seemly, unthemed Blawg Review, the next time you host this carnival of legal weblogs.

the son who
argues everything
I study his face in a puddle

………………………………………. by George Swede – Almost Unseen (2000)

8 Comments

  1. the Best new blawg

    cannot be

    mine?

    -Haiku for the poetically challenged, 2007

    Comment by Scott Greenfield — November 30, 2007 @ 2:35 pm

  2. >>tended to include topics/segments within the profession that are of greatest interest to ABA leaders and potential advertisers, and exclude those — like family law and personal injury law — that for some reason are not of foremost interest to bar leaders, likely advertisers>

    The Mission of the American Bar Association is to be the national representative of the legal profession, serving the public and the profession by promoting justice, professional excellence and respect for the law.

    From the ABA website:

    The Mission of the American Bar Association is to be the national representative of the legal profession, serving the public and the profession by promoting justice, professional excellence and respect for the law.

    If advertising dollars are now more important than the mission, then they have failed in the mission.

    Comment by Eric Turkewitz — November 30, 2007 @ 2:35 pm

  3. Eric, Thanks for raising the issues at your weblog, and for commenting here. I hate to sound more cynical than usual, but want to point to something I wrote a couple years ago, when comparing Bar Association mission statements to reality:

    [T]hey should at least delete all the pious statements about putting the client’s interests first, living up to the highest standards of ethics, and existing to serve the public.

    Instead, bar association websites might conspicuously post this disclaimer:

    Warning: We are a guild, here to serve the economic interests of our members. We’ll fight (’til your last dollar) to protect you from any legal adversary and to secure your legal rights. However, when it comes to your financial interests versus our own, we will put ours first whenever possible.

    Comment by David Giacalone — November 30, 2007 @ 2:49 pm

  4. You ask: “I wonder what the chosen badge says about the needs and creeds of the lawyer-weblogger”?

    I’ll bite, having made the choice you describe. The ABA Journal established a competition and invited participation. I’m not a lawyer, but instead my background is in electoral and legislative politics. In both arenas, rule #1 is that if you want someone to vote for you, you have to ask. So I did – not just because of ego, though like most writers I’ve surely got one, but because the process engages core readers and gives them a way to participate in promoting the blog. That strengthens the blog’s overall communal relationships, since at core blogs are a community of writers and readers. Now, having answered, what were you implying that it said about the “needs and creeds” of blawggers? I suspect it wasn’t flattering.

    FWIW, you’ve pegged it 100% correctly that these best of lists are mere popularity contests, but failed to answer the followup question, so what? They encourage blogger interaction, which IMO is good, and for myself I learned about quite a few new blogs I didn’t know about, e.g., like this one. That alone is a service to both the ABA Journal’s readers and the blogosphere. Nobody at ABA or any other best-of list ever claimed the results were scientific, just like reader polls on blogs don’t withstand scrutiny, or annual “best of the city” lists in local entertainment weeklies. Glenn Reynolds beats everyone is we measure by reader votes, though I don’t think Instapundit is the best legal blog. So what? It’s just for fun. Embracing subjectivity is part of what makes the blogosphere distinct from the MSM, and that’s a good thing. best,

    Comment by Gritsforbreakfast — December 1, 2007 @ 9:09 am

  5. Hi, Grits, thanks for taking the time to leave an in-depth comment.

    I agree the ABA Journal Blawg 100 list indeed does a service for many readers (especially those who do not spend much time at weblogs) and for blawgers who do not have the time for endless web-surfing. My goal was to help the feeble-minded or clueless — not my regular readers, naturaly — (and some of the loudest complainers) understand how the process works, so they would keep things in perspective.

    It’s a little scary, of course, to think that a lot of lawyers go around not understanding how the world works (or — like lots of politicians — making believe they don’t, so that they can moan about it).

    I didn’t call Best of Lists popularity contests. They rarely are that — unless “popular” means “the ones the Owner thinks can best help promote his publication.”

    If it wasn’t so easy to stuff the ballot box in the blawg-favorites poll and similar contests, it would make more sense to participate. As formulated, even they aren’t really Popularity Contests in many of the categories.

    One place I differ with your Comments: I like the candidates who say “they’re holding an election, vote for the candidate you think is the best.” By insisting that voters must be directly asked, you don’t seem to give either your blawg readers, your blawg itself, or the electorate much credit.

    Comment by David Giacalone — December 1, 2007 @ 12:08 pm

  6. “you don’t seem to give either your blawg readers, your blawg itself, or the electorate much credit.”

    Well of course I don’t give the electorate much credit. Look who we elect!

    As for my blog readers, naturally I think they have excellent taste in reading materials! But I think it’s you that underestimates them, assuming they won’t know they have the option to vote for someone else unless I tell them so. People understand how voting works.

    You may prefer candidates who don’t ask for your vote, but from a political perspective that’s pretty naive. Particularly for driving traffic online, a direct ask generates more click-throughs than a general one, plain and simple. best,

    Comment by Gritsforbreakfast — December 2, 2007 @ 7:42 am

  7. What does it say? It says the “Vote for this blog” was the first listed option and I grabbed it because I didn’t have a lot of time. That’s ALL it says.

    God I am so sick of this subject, and the whiny, sour-grapes, faux-controversy. Of COURSE it’s a beauty contest. Of COURSE it doesn’t mean anything! If it’s a bad list – and I don’t disagree that some really good blogs were left out, by the way, and that I would have created a much different list – then MAKE YOUR OWN.

    Everyday through this artificial controversy I am constantly reminded of the old saw: “He (or she) who looks for something to be offended at will never lack for contenders.”

    Comment by Sheryl Sisk Schelin — December 3, 2007 @ 1:06 pm

  8. Hi, Sheryl. When I saw you had commented, I expected you to join me in support of my main purpose in making this posting — to suggest that those who are whining about the List are making much too big a deal of it, are failing to acknowledge or purposely ignoring the obvious limitations of every best-of list, and are mostly acting out of their own self-interest.

    Instead, I find you being amazingly defensive about my little after-thought. No wonder you’re sick of this controversy — you are taking it far too personal. (And, to be honest, I bet you could have stolen that extra half-second and noticed the “vote for your favorites” badge a few inches down the screen).

    I refuse to use emoticons to show when I’m being less-than-fully serious (or am making an obviously minor, catty point, and having some fun). People who love to take offense should seriously consider avoiding this weblog.

    Comment by David Giacalone — December 3, 2007 @ 1:31 pm

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