Please stop making “my greatest hits of the year” lists

I’m not doing any “best of 2022” reflections this year. I’ve come to realize that those kinds of reflections are an utter, meaningless waste of time.  At best they are irrelevant, based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how digital creators and audiences work. At worse they are egotistical noise, just shallow marketing schemes.

I’m so tired of them and want them to stop.

First, these lists misunderstand audiences. If anyone cares about your content, they already showed it. They clicked, commented, reblogged, embedded, social bookmarked it, or whatever. They did this sometime in the past year. They are not likely to care about what other folks did to your content 1-11 months afterwards.

Top 10 Landscape items, by Kess

Second, most creators already do this throughout the year, I expect. Platforms usually provide that info on the backend.  On my WordPress blog Jetpack gives me plenty of stats, numbers of clicks, referral sources, times of interaction, etc. Medium offers a typically clean chart of a couple of things people do with your stories. Heck, Duolingo gives me a running list of my language learning: time spent, number of words learned, scores gained, and so on. So if you’re a creator and are interested in making popular posts/videos/photos/etc., you’re probably already doing this.  You check on individual items to see how they fare with audiences.  You look for patterns of engagement. There’s nothing special about pausing around New Year’s to do it once more, or doing so in public.

Unless you’re marketing your stuff.  Which is, I suspect, the real point of the exercise for a lot of folks.  The real message of a best-of-year list is “Look at my most popular stuff!” It’s an undeniably appealing pitch, I’ll grant that. It follows the old radio Top Ten Hits or Top 40 formats.  And it taps into the junior high/middle school experience, sadly, that often bitter training on tracking the popular crowd. Plus it burnishes one’s brand a bit – i.e., look at the shiniest stuff and not the thereby less brilliant rest.  And it’s a statistical game, too, since the data is relative, not absolute. It shows the comparative best of a closed group, not necessarily the things which got a lot of hits in the broader world.  If I posted photos to Instagram for a year and the top ten got two likes apiece, I can crow about that, right? It hides the overall lack of engagement.  For a bonus, since the supermajority of thusly highlighted content isn’t recent, as we’re talking about 365 days of content, which is ages online, it’s actually an attempt to work the long tail.  The real translation of “Here are my top 10 items” is really “Check out my back catalog!”

Along these lines, I just received an email from my current Congressional representative.  He did a year-end retrospective:

Throughout my time in Congress, my number one priority has always been to best serve the folks I represent in Virginia’s First District. As we enter the new year, I wanted to take a moment to highlight some of the key moments and accomplishments from this year.

Translated: “I am a fine public servant. Donate to me! Remember to vote for me, too!” The year-end retrospective is plain old marketing.

Third, while compiling and sharing such a Top 10 list might look like transparency, it’s actually closer to the opposite.  Your popular content is by definition not something hidden. In fact, most platforms (not all, true) publicly show how often people respond to a content chunk.  It’s easy to see likes, comments, reshares, and so on on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and YouTube, no matter what the creator does.  Moreover, algorithmic-driven feeds foreground popular items, making them more popular, so those platforms have already boosted the stuff.  A “most popular of the year” list is increasingly redundant.

Top Music hits midwest i 1971_Kevin Dooley

Now, if a creator really wants to be transparent they should do a year-end list of the least popular content they produced.  Show us instead the posts with zero likes, the videos nobody bothered to click on.  And reflect on that, telling us what you think went wrong, or how the audience misunderstood.  Bonus points if the creator thought these should have been hits or was otherwise dear to them.  *That* is transparent.  And not so easy.

Speaking of which, and fourth, there’s stuff which we create which by its nature doesn’t get year-long attention spikes. Sometimes it’s a series of items which build up into something important, but individual pieces don’t get special attention.Think about those one-photo-each-day projects, like this, this, or this. A given instance of that work isn’t necessarily important or interesting. They might be, say if there’s a clever shot or something unusual represented – but then that one image is what’s popular, not the project as a whole.  Taking a self-portrait every day for a year: that’s the real takeaway, the commitment plus what we see developing over the arc of time.

The Draculablog I’ve worked on for years with Andrew Connell offers a related example of this. It publishes the entire novel every year on the calendar dates within the book.  Some individual posts might get traction for whatever reason, which I find mildly noteworthy, but it’s the whole project that’s important to me.  It’s an unusual, archival version of the novel, which is openly searchable, accessible, linkable, and comment-able by anyone with a browser and the interest.  Andrew and I are proud of the work. The relative popularity of a given entry isn’t really the point.

And sometimes we work on something because we find it important for ourselves, not for likes. Perhaps the thing we’re crafting is our passion, and we’ll do it alone for a long time if we must. Maybe that’s why we spend time working on it. “Top 2022 hits” lists can easily miss that motivation.

For myself, I’ve been working for several years on the intersections between academia and the climate crisis. My posts, tweets, videos, etc. on the topic typically don’t get a lot of clicks/comments/etc. (Remember what I said up above about real transparency?) For the first few months that surprised me, given the huge prominence of a planetary, civilizational crisis.  My posts on other, popular topics typically gained a lot more traction. Since then the quiet response has interested me instead, as it leads into a question I’ve been pondering: why so many academics seemingly aren’t involved in climate action.  I hope to post some thoughts about that next year.  Absence of evidence and all that, but there is something interesting in relative silence amid rising shouting.  Again, a “most popular posts” review completely avoids that line of inquiry.

But I also do this climate-and-academia work because I think it’s ahead of the curve. As a futurist it’s my job to look ahead, even when – or especially when – few others are doing so. For example, when I was writing Academia Next I did some forecasting about pandemics and how they might impact higher education. This received very little interest until 2020.  A “my most popular hits of the year” list will usually miss such anticipatory work.

Working on climate change is also the right thing to do, damn it, despite the lack of clicks. I’m investing a chunk of my career and a lot of my reputation on it.  I am prepared to be an outlier for a while.  My bet is that as the crisis deepens, humanity will increasingly think and do more in response, and academia will join in.   I know it might take some time, even years.  Heck, writing a scholarly book takes a lot of time. Doing scholarship on an emergent topic can be even more time consuming. That’s why it took three years for Universities on Fire to make its way into the market. But I think it is just and ethical to commit a portion of my life and energies to the struggle now. None of this work, practice, thinking, and planning appears in a “most popular hits of the year” list. In fact, focusing on such shallow popularity contests can discourage use from working on such long-term projects.

So stop doing these “my hottest stuff this year” lists, people. They are egocentric and stochastic noise. They fundamentally misunderstand audiences and creative work. Instead, look ahead to the next year!

(landscaping items by Kess; Midwest top music in 1971 by Kevin Dooley)

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4 Responses to Please stop making “my greatest hits of the year” lists

  1. Well, if you’re in Wittman’s district and within commuting distance of Georgetown, then at least next month you’ll be redistricted into either Wexton’s or Spanberger’s district. If that’s not good year-end news, I don’t know what is.

  2. Some are as you say but not all. In the case of blogs I don’t check as often as I used to for whatever reason (sometimes even forgetting the blogger’s name, the year’s “pick of the litter” post is a welcome reminder. Back when I had the blogging habit, I tried to do something year-endish or even Janussy but never by the number. Instead, I picked the posts I liked best and that meant the most to me, for various reasons that I included in a short and hopefully sprightly introductory note.

  3. Dahn Shaulis says:

    FYI: Bryan Alexander was listed as the best (known) higher education futurist in the Milky Way Galaxy not using an actual time machine.

  4. Phillilp Long says:

    Here here Bryan! I couldn’t agree with you more. Attention spans are precious and parsing them ever more narrowly to attend to things that someone things were important in the past year takes away from attending to things important now and into the near future.

    Future forward is an approach response.

    I hope it doesn’t take a climate catastrophe equivalent of the pandemic to generatethe attention that Universities on Fire should receive.

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