Monday, 5 January 2015

Are We Obsessed with ‘Best of'’ Lists?

by Nick Graham


This is the time of year when ‘Best of …’ lists turn up, so it seems appropriate to examine this fascination. Why do we seem to need these lists?

For any type of product, there always seems to be a list of the supposed ‘best ones’. Some lists are just about the ‘ best [insert object] of [insert previous year here]’ and some are updates of ‘best [insert object] ever’.

It is obvious that lots of people read these lists, otherwise they wouldn’t be being made anymore. But just what are they for?

‘Best ever’ lists seem to be the less useful of the two. This is because they have two clear disadvantages, one we all know, the other slightly less apparent. First, if you are interested in the topic on which the list is written, it is highly likely that you already know a large proportion of the ‘best’ items. This sort of defeats the point of making the list in the first place, because anything that is truly deserving of being on the list is probably already famous within its field, and therefore everyone knows that it is good. The other disadvantage is that these lists cannot always cope with the passage of time and the changes it brings. I will explore this later.

Consider the idea of the ‘best films ever’ list. There are generally 3 ways this list can be drawn up: critics’ opinions of the films, public voting, and highest grossing films. Critics’s opinions are actually quite good for this, and are used for some of the professional lists, i.e. those that are printed in magazines, or those that are put on TV. Public voting is the most common method for internet lists. This has the same problem as every other poll - the people taking it. The results of these polls are effectively determined by the group of people who are asked, and not by what the overall population think, let alone what the best-designed or best-made item is. 

For instance, Channel 4 got its viewers to vote on what they thought was the best ever TV character. The top answer: Homer Simpson. While he may be a good character, there is no guarantee that another group of people would say that he is the best. The Simpsons is a Channel 4 program, and probably its most popular and most famous programme at that. As a result, asking people who watch that channel almost guarantees that a character from The Simpsons will rank very near the top of the list. Homer is the most iconic character, and what do you know: he was voted as the ‘best character’. He is the probably the most popular character from one of the best known shows on the channel. That does not mean that he is actually better than characters from other shows on other channels, but it does mean that he has a massive head start on them in this particular list. 

As time passes by, the younger generations will become the majority of the voters, meaning that characters from old shows are highly likely to be replaced by newer ones, not necessarily because of quality, but because of the people being asked. And finally: highest grossing. This is possibly the worst method of determining a ‘best ever’ list. Over the years, the price of going to the cinema has risen massively. As such, more recently released films will have higher takings than those released say, 20 years before. When you look up the worldwide highest grossing films, the chart is dominated by films from the twenty first century. Films like E.T. and Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, two renowned and enduring films, are outranked by two of the Transformers movies and Despicable Me 2. Ask people which films they would expect to be among the best ever films, and it is highly unlikely that a wide sample group would come up with two of the Transformers movies outranking E.T. and the first two Lord of the Rings movies. 

Another way that this can be seen is in how in several obvious cases the later movies of a franchise outsell the earlier movies, despite not being massively better than them. For instance, The Return of the King is noticeably the highest-grossing movie from its trilogy, and the 1st and 3rd movies from the Star Wars prequel series outrank the original Star Wars movie, despite the general opinion by most fans that the original trilogy was much better than the prequel trilogy. And it is the money each film makes that is often the method used to for determining the ‘best’ movies in the serious magazines and websites, because it is the only method with reliable numbers.

Now to the ‘best of [insert previous year]’ lists. These are definitely more useful, as there is a chance that you could have missed one of the more recent (relatively speaking) hits, and are a good way of seeing what you missed recently. However it still suffers from the problem of who votes in the polls, and the additional problem of how good the year was in general for that field. The unavoidable difficulty with this is that it will often take more than a few months to see what really was the best of that year, as with fields such as music, games and films, their lasting popularity is one of the major indicators of how good something is. These lists are actually fairly useful at times, but they still have several flaws, and there are definitely too many of these lists due to duplicates of the popular topics and a fair few lists that are on topics so small or obscure that they are virtually useless to anyone who is not extremely interested in the topic and who would therefore already know what their favourites are.

The idea of the ‘best of’ something is an interesting one in any case. This means that these lists will always be subjective, as it is really just ‘most popular’ as these lists will be drawn up based on polls or money made, meaning that it is just how much the general public likes the different items. This means that you could have lots of different lists that are supposedly the ‘best of’ a particular field, which could get more than a little confusing.

The use of ‘best of’ lists is really just a free form of advertising for the items that make it onto the list. It means that the successful items are more likely to be bought. This means that the companies with successful products are more likely to sell future products, and makes it harder for newer, smaller companies to get onto the market. It is a vicious circle for those who don’t get a good breakthrough at the right time, and a spiral of benefits for those who are already in or have a brilliant breakthrough.

A similar idea is often used in the music industry: after a few years, an artist or group who has had at least a small measure of success with the odd hit will release a ‘best of’ or ‘greatest hits’ album. This is more than a bit misleading in many cases. It may well be their highest-ranking tracks, but that does not mean that those tracks are popular or particularly good in the overall scheme of things. This was highlighted perfectly by comedian Dave Gorman on his show Modern Life is Goodish. A group released their ‘greatest hits’ album, but no more than half of these ever reached the top 20 in the music charts. In addition to this, there was a brand new ‘previously unreleased’ track, which does not, under any circumstances, belong on a ‘greatest hits’ album, as they don’t even know if it will be popular at all. In these circumstances, the use of the words ‘best of’ or ‘greatest hits’ is just a way of convincing consumers that this is more valuable than other ‘ordinary’ albums, so that they will buy this album over the others, and if they already have a few albums by this group, they will still buy this because it is their best tracks conveniently put together in one album.

However there are a lot of these lists out there, both official and fan-made, so there are undoubtedly a few that will interest you, if you are willing to sift through and find them among the thousands of others on the internet. Now that you know how they are made and what they really mean, I hope that will help you to get what you want from these lists and not be misled and confused by them.


The ultimate ‘best of’ event is starting its annual media push as I write - if you really want to see product placement and polls influencing polls then just wait for the Oscars!

1 comment:

  1. A few oddities here. Channel 4 only rebroadcasts episodes from The Simpsons, and even then Sky hold rights to get more recent episodes first. A broad assumption is made that all of Channel 4's viewers watch The Simpsons, and not the 23 hours 30 minutes of other television (assuming we are talking about weekdays), which can contain plenty of entertainment and worthy characters. The problem with the `best` is that it is subjective as you sat- each person has their own opinion. Aggregating these opinions in the form of a vote or panel of critics makes the data more objective, but not enough to justify the name `best`.

    Even your opinion on highest grossing movies is subjective- however the inflation in cinema ticket prices may contribute to this. Perhaps adjusting for CPI (Cinema Price Index (for the economists)) in the highest grossing tables could solve the problem, although when did economists decide film rankings?

    (the actual) OP.

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