The Cutline

Why the media insists on publishing year-end lists before the year’s end

Dylan Stableford
The Cutline

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Pop singer Feist, whose album, Metals, was on many 'Best of 2011' lists. (AP)

Barbara Walters' choice of the Kardashian clan as one of her "10 Most Fascinating People of 2011" drew extended ridicule when her annual primetime television special  aired on ABC on Dec. 14. (Still more puzzling to linguistic purists was the process by which an entire family counts as a single entry on a list of individual persons.)

But in a less list-happy mediasphere, Walters might have also been called out for the timing of her big Kardashian reveal--she'd announced her most-fascinating-people roster on Dec. 1--a full month before the year ends. Might not someone in the higher reaches of the nearly fascinating empyrean make the cut at during the year's final five weeks or so?

Walters, of course, was not alone in jumping the gun. The same day, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey announced the "Top 10 tweets of 2011," with 30 days--and, based on Twitter's own (conservative) estimates, 6 billion tweets--still to come.

On Nov. 29, Facebook published its own list of the top 40 most shared articles of 2011, eschewing an entire month of users flooding their friends' newsfeeds with stories about natural disasters, dogs and/or parents who dress their girls in other-than-age-appropriate fashion. (Yahoo--it's worth noting--is just as guilty as anyone.)

"You're seeing them now starting to pop up around Thanksgiving," Rex Sorgatz, who for nearly a decade chronicled the crush of year-end lists on his "List of Lists," told Yahoo News. "Journalists have sort of made that the official start to the race to get the first year-end headline out."

Combine that urge with the explosion of social media platforms such as Facebook and Tumblr, and the great enterprise of list-publishing has become, as Sorgatz says, "more insane."

But it appears as the volume of year-end lists has increased, so, too, has readers' appetite for them.

"We've definitely seen a spike in traffic," says Scott Lamb, managing editor of BuzzFeed.com, whose list of "The 45 Most Powerful Images of 2011" generated 8.4 million page views alone. "The idea of fatigue is only from people in the media whose job it is to be reading all these sites all day."

Still, BuzzFeed tries not to feature too many lists on the front page "to fend off the potential for fatigue," Lamb says. "In December, we don't want to turn the front page of BuzzFeed into a page of lists."

Traffic is a motivation for publishing year-end lists, but there's another reason, too: vacations. "With holiday breaks and people out of the office, lists are a way to produce a bunch of content quickly," Sorgatz says. "So there's an economics to them."

There is, however, a danger in publishing end-of-year lists too early. "The publishing industry doesn't want to become like Wal-mart, when Christmas stuff starts showing up five days earlier every year," Lamb says. "Before the first week of December is obnoxious."

Ben Williams, editorial director of New York magazine's website, agrees. "If you publish a year-end list before Dec. 1, I can't take you seriously."

Williams also scorns would-be media prognosticators who publish annual predictions. "Lots of people use year-end lists to segue into predictions for next year," Williams says. "I find those particularly meaningless--no one knows what's going to happen."

"The funny thing about year-end lists is that they're supposed to help you sort through the insane amount of material produced every year," Amos Barshad wrote in an introduction to Vulture's 2010 year-end list of year-end lists. "Only, at this point, by being so bountiful, they've become yet one more thing you feel stressed out about keeping up with."

"I take a utilitarian position on lists," Williams says. "I find them useful. They're there, people read them every year, and people grumble about them every year. But I listen to a lot of music, watch a lot of TV and movies. They help me catch up. I look at them and write stuff down. If you follow a particular critic, it's a useful snapshot of what they're thinking."

Maura Johnston, music editor at the Village Voice, which publishes a slew of annual lists including the acclaimed Pazz and Jop review of the year's music releases, says she finds the list glut useful, too. "Not the consensus lists so much, but the individual ones that expose the lower reaches of artists I maybe don't know about," Johnston says. "I like the 'science' behind them."

Sorgatz also favors the "expert filters" like Loren Coleman, a "cryptozoologist" who does an annual list of "Top Cryptozoology Stories."

"It's a form, like anything else," Williams says. "You can do it well, or you can do it poorly."

The problem is, a larger overall volume of lists also seems to increase the poor-performing entries.

"I object to any system that makes me feel like a store clerk in 'High Fidelity,' " Emily Nussbaum, former culture editor at New York magazine now at The New Yorker, wrote in a recent blog post, entitled, appropriately, "I Hate Top Ten Lists." "Please don't make me tell you the best television show of the year. Although the answer is obviously 'Breaking Bad.' "

Sorgatz—who says in recent years he was forced to hire people to help him publish his list of lists and even built a content-management system to handle the submissions—isn't doing one this year. "It got to be too much," he says. "I chose life." Sorgatz's list of lists had more than 1,700 in 2010; this year, he says, "We would've had over 2,000, easily."

Williams, though, has some simple advice to those with year-end list fatigue: "If you don't like lists, don't read them."

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