Online Top-Ten Lists May Be Meaningless

Popularity is, unfortunately, still all the rage.

The Internet has facilitated an outbreak of popularity contests as online news providers rank the top 10 most-read, -emailed or -commented articles on their home page.

These rankings have become a standard feature on news sites for the last two years, including this newspaper's, and sites continue to expand the features: The New York Times is adding a most-viewed list, FOX News (owned by News Corp., as is the Journal) introduced most-shared this week and a most-commented list is coming to this month.

These lists are among the byproducts of the Internet's knack for being instantly quantifiable.

Purchases on update the online retailer's sales rankings and their people-who-bought-this-also-bought-that recommendations.

Yahoo continually updates its top 10 user searches on its home page, and the iTunes Store does the same with its list of top songs.

Using popularity rankings to make decisions, however, has downsides.

These online rankings are public, creating a positive-feedback loop.

The more popular something becomes, even if just from a random burst of interest, the more likely it is to grow ever more popular.

And that has troubling implications about the effects of all sorts of popularity rankings, from bestseller charts to election polls.

Frequently, popularity rankings speak less to the merits of what's being observed and more to the fact that crowds are observing it. In other words, peer pressure.

"If you see a crowd around a building, you pop over and see what everyone is looking at," says Jimmy Leach, editorial director for digital at the Independent newspaper in the U.K.

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