Best for who? Or, where Madison ranks

In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.

In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.

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MICROTONES by Scott Gordon, editor-in-chief and publisher

We got ranked again. We in Madison are old hands at being ranked, and we’re quick to post on social media to spread the word about our rankings. When a ranking of the best cities to live in America, best cities for millennials, best music scenes, or what have you includes Madison, it’s like we’re basking in the radioactive glow of the ever-churning internet content machine. Whether it simply makes you feel good about your city or triggers a dozen of your greatest media pet peeves all at once, it’s safe to say that Madison is just plain obsessed.

Some of the rankings that become local headlines and social shares actually mean something. The 2019 Dangerous By Design report on pedestrian safety, for instance, deemed Madison the second-safest metro area in the United States for pedestrians. The people who created it, at Smart Growth America, are experts in fields including public health and urban planning. They showed their work and explained their methodology, and placed the stats in a broader context, breaking down how un-walkable urban environments are especially dangerous for the most vulnerable Americans (something we in Madison can think about even while taking pride in the pedestrian-friendly areas we’ve created). Sure, you could potentially nitpick the methodology and the report’s conclusions, but at least it has real implications for policymakers and the lives of everyday Americans. You can do something with that.

More often, city-ranking articles aren’t good for much beyond generic boosterism. The best example is Livability.com, which this week ranked Madison its third best place to live of 2019. Madison’s got a long history with Livability: The Badger Herald reported in 2013 that Mayor Paul Soglin has at times lobbied the website to boost our ranking. As usual, individual Madisonians and institutions, from the local chamber of commerce to UW-Madison’s MBA program, are sharing the news of this year’s rankings.

“When we see things like the city we live in being ranked highly, we feel this boost of self esteem, this little drop of dopamine in our brains,” says Don Stanley, a professor of life sciences communication at UW-Madison who also works in digital marketing. “You kind of want to broadcast that you’re a part of something.” Of course, people creating this content understand this impulse—and how it ties into the workings of social-media platforms like Facebook. But the behavior of sharing a city-ranking listicle does at least point to deeply held, and perhaps even positive, human yearnings. “That’s a big push right now in digital marketing, is this idea, and this is especially true with millennials and Gen Z-ers, that they don’t want to be a part of something, they want to belongto something,” Stanley says. The difference between those two things? “There’s a much deeper emotional connection.”

Livability calculates a city’s “LivScore” using a “proprietary algorithm”—which means its methodology is inherently opaque—that ostensibly cobbles together data about factors like home values, demographic diversity, education, transportation, and health care. All important things to consider, but a LivScore is more of an aspirational slurry than a measurement.

“A great deal of social media sharing is about self-presentation,” says Mike Wagner, a UW-Madison journalism professor who studies the intersection of democracy and media. “Sharing that the place you’ve chosen to live has been identified as a great place to live reflects well on your choices for at least two reasons: 1) you chose to live in a great place and 2) maybe you living there contributes to that place’s greatness. Of course, any ‘best place to live’ designation should be followed up with the question, ‘best for who?'”

Without a solid answer to Wagner’s question, Livability can give us only broad strokes that might not speak to the needs of a particular person or group. Where might you go, and who might you be there? These rankings give you some tantalizing but ultimately vague clues, and of course the order has to shuffle around every year in order to keep things interesting. (Madison’s LivScore for 2019 is 691, actually higher than that of top-ranked Boise.) No matter how good its source data or its special algorithm, a site like Livability (which is part of a for-profit media company, rather than a scholarly institute or non-profit think tank) ultimately has to balance the imperatives of social science with those of the merciless attention economy.

The accompanying text about Madison in such rankings is required by law to include mentions of the Terrace and the farmer’s market, and to use the adjective “funky.” Surprisingly, this year’s Livability writeup dings Madison just a bit, noting that “the city could benefit from more diversity,” which is putting it mildly. Overall it’s an improvement over a lot of these pieces, which usually are obviously written by out-of-towners who’ve done very slapdash research—remember the travel site that in 2017 touted Madison’s “bratwurst stalls“?


Over the past few years we’ve witnessed so many pernicious things happen in online media that these trivial gimmicks have started to feel way less irritating. Plus, as Madison grows and openly wrestles with its racial, political, and economic shortcomings, we might shed a bit of the quaint insecurity that fuels the city-ranking fixation. If you live here, you’ve probably already decided what you love about it and what you’d like to fix and what would make you leave. This means these articles aren’t really for you, even though they’re meant for you to share. I think that over time, we’re increasingly learning not to ignore these listicles, but to look at them with a savvy collective eye and say: OK, but tell us something we don’t know.

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New this week:

Dayna Long takes a tough look at the state of abortion politics in Madison. (Illustration by Rachal Duggan.)

On the Tone Madison Podcast, bassist Nick Moran discusses his experiences traveling and playing in Cuba and India.

Hear a track from Madison punk trio Solid Freex‘s new album.

The Shitty Barn in Spring Green needs a new roof.

Elsewhere on the Madison internet: The Wisconsin State Journal reports that the Camp Randall football-pile sculpture might have to moveComicsVerse surveys the career of Lynda BarryPossum fucks fence. WORT’s 8 O’Clock Buzz previews the Wild & Scenic Film Festival.

This week’s Madison calendar: Sun Of Goldfinger spins far-reaching improvisations at Arts + Literature Laboratory. Kilo Kish plays the Majestic. A series on filmmaker Andrew Bujalski kicks off at UW CinemathequeAnd more.  

An ode to the best and worst of Madison summers.

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