God listicles ugh honestly. (Photo by Caylan Larson.)
I am starting a new illegal gambling operation. Participants will place bets on how much time will pass between the posting of a listicle/ranking-type article that mentions Madison and the posting of a Madison media outlet’s inevitable pickup post about said article.
Once our model is sophisticated enough, we’ll allow bettors to wager on Madison media’s response to listicle/rankings pieces that *don’t* include Madison.
Ponder, for a second, the perverseness of what happens when an established outlet like Madison.com or even The Badger Herald runs a story about where some website ranked Madison on its lists of best places to live/best foodie cities/gayest cities/bike-friendly cities. Those reporters and editors are lending traffic and credibility to the very brand of click bait that is rapidly undermining the role of reporters and editors. Today’s top story: What the guy who’s trying to eat my lunch said.
Stories about listicle/rankings about Madison have become nearly as predictable and insufferable as stories wrongheadedly comparing Madison to other cities. This week’s examples: BBC Travel’s inclusion of Madison in its list of great university towns, and rapid Capital Times follow-up; Livability.com’s 5th-best place to live ranking for Madison and The Badger Herald’s follow-up. (Oh, PS: most racist? We’ve got that covered!) Yes, there is clearly an argument to be made for the news value of such things, but Madison media covers them with what strikes me as a ridiculous frequency, and worse, with stunning credulity.
If you’ve read a lot of city-rankings-type articles, and are a professional writer or editor, you have likely observed a few things by now: These articles are often quite cursory, often come off as a perfunctory re-shuffling of a few dozen major metro areas, are often written with people who have a best a passing affinity for our town, and sometimes take a “data-driven” approach that is, by nature, arbitrary and short-sighted. So why, then, is it excusable to write about these articles without questioning their methodologies? Especially Livability, whose embarrassing approach I’ve poked holes in before.
I would argue that this ranking fixation runs counter to real, healthy forms of civic pride. I love this town, I’m a proud UW-Madison employee and even decided to buy a house in this town, but I wouldn’t define my reasons for doing so in a bunch of perfunctory web flotsam written by people who don’t even live here. The basis of real pride is in ourselves, in our communities, and in the choices we make every day.
So when someone’s just blowing sunshine up our asses for clicks, shouldn’t we react with, if anything, contempt? Just about all of our media outlets have a long way to go before they adequately reflect the city’s intelligence, strengths, faults and overall complexity (I include A.E. in this criticism). One easy improvement would be to stop making so much of all this half-baked flattery.
The Badger Herald‘s story reveals the most disturbing thing about all of this: Our mayor and one of our more tech-savvy alders not only actually give a shit about Livability’s rankings, they even went to the trouble of following up with the site in an effort to improve our rankings, and talk about improving their ranking as a goal.
Ald. Scott Resnick, District 8, said Madison’s improved ranking is thanks to Mayor Paul Soglin. When examining Livability’s original rankings, Soglin noticed a discrepancy in the numbers, particularly in the area of education, Resnick said.
After realizing this disparity, Soglin’s staff contacted Livability’s team and notified them that Madison’s education numbers were far too low, Resnick said.
After Soglin contacted Livability, Madison’s ranking jumped from 79th to 5th, Resnick said.
Yes, Madison is indeed a great place to live. But when we fuss over these largely meaningless rankings, we simply come off as provincial and a bit insecure. Now, who’s looking to win big?
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