WE RANK AND WE RANK SOME MORE—this does sound somewhat disgusting, unless we think of the “other” meaning of rank: it is a truism of our contemporary moment that we are constantly attempting to establish ratings and rankings. Where does this desire to rank come from? What is its value? Why has it intensified so dramatically in recent years?
First, who does these rankings?
One of the interesting phenomena of magazine publishing of the last twenty years is that it has worked to corner the market on ranking, but with far from complete success. Think of the term Fortune 500, and we are drawn to Fortune magazine, where the top five hundred corporations are listed. Similar efforts have been employed by Rolling Stone magazine to rank popular music albums, adding aesthetics to the efforts of Billboard magazine’s sales-derived Top 100 format, or perhaps for a more contemporary feel, iTune song downloads. Forbes magazine’s own fortune and reputation rises and falls with its series of rankings of public personalities that have become somewhat of a gold standard for the determination of individual rankings. We have the top one hundred most influential celebrities, the rich list, the individual country celebrity lists, the most powerful women list, and so on. Time magazine’s Person of the Year award indirectly constructs a ranking of the also-rans, and it is awaited with some anticipation each December, but its organization of rankings of influence occupies many issues throughout the year. Indeed, one would have to identity that one of the most prominent and powerful forms of click-bait on the Internet is to include one’s information in a top five, ten, or twenty ranking. These forms of popular online communication are now called listicles.
Higher education has become increasingly influenced by rankings as they have moved from national contexts to world comparisons. U.S. News and World Report pinned some of its principal earnings on its American college ranking issues and catalogs, which have served to position the relative reputations of the sixteen hundred or so colleges and universities in the United States in a clear pecking order. Institutional ranking of universities has certainly expanded: the first global ranking of universities was conducted by Shanghai Jiao Tong University in 2003, with its publication of Academic Rankings of World Universities (Hazelkorn 2011), and was quickly matched by the Times QS World University Rankings in 2004.
American Top 40 is a long-running effort to maintain the pulse of American culture, while efforts by Top of the Pops in Britain or Countdown in Australia have provided a similar service via television—at least historically. At the end of the year, similar lists identify the top news events ranked in terms of their power to affect us. Along with the New York Times best-seller lists and a host of online ranking services that are determining relative sales and purchases of things, we are used to being ranked. For instance, my first book, Celebrity and Power, has an Amazon Best Sellers rank of 1,024,080, which of course is suitably humbling.
Rankings quite simply occur everywhere: they are part of our online search behavior as we look for how Google has ranked via its PageRank (see Hillis, Petit, and Jarrett 2013) system. Recipes are ranked and numbered; movies are listed into top ten categories. IMDb even blends the present and the past in its list of Top 100 Actors in American cinema as number 1 (!!!) Woody Allen rubs shoulders with number 6 Humphrey Bogart and number 78 Brad Pitt.
Increasingly, we are seeing the expansion of rankings that are calibrating individuals as much as institutions or products. The origins of this kind of calibration have built from individual sports primarily and major league drafts in some of the major professional team sports. For instance, tennis and golf have maintained elaborate international rankings for some time. The men’s Official World Golf Ranking has been generated since 1986, while the men’s Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the Women’s Tennis Association have maintained a world ranking system since 1973 and 1975, respectively. The reasons for rankings are to determine appropriate entry levels for tournaments that are fair and justified: from the earliest stages, the ATP identified that it was a “computer ranking system” to give it the aura of both objectivity and infallibility. By extension, and for “seeding” purposes, official rankings now populate these same sports (along with squash, table tennis, racquetball, handball, swimming, and athletics) well down into the most junior of ages: Florida, for instance, ranks its tennis players in the eight and under category. Australia has a tennis ranking system that does not differentiate the various divisions and moves from the most highly ranked professional to the most lowly ranked ten-year-old who has played a “ranking” tournament.
The systems and structures of ranking people have been built on different metrics with elaborated matrices of values and hierarchies. In the world of academia, one can see that citations define impact in a field and sites and programs such as Google Scholar build on their past ability to rank to express the relative value and rank of a given scholar. It is important to understand that Google Scholar is defined in terms of the individual “scholar” as much as the production of research. The capacity to build algorithms that in their intersection provide the ability (however flawed) to quantify prestige is moving through our various fields and professions. This capability to measure reputation depends on individuals’ publicizing themselves through online means. Thus a Facebook profile, an Academia.edu account, a LinkedIn account, an Instagram presence, and membership among the Twitterati are also avenues to establish relative reputation. Social media are not only building in terms of sheer numbers, they are also building in terms of critical masses of categories of public selves that are known, identifiable, and thus relationally a way to measure prestige. The smaller social media networks, such as Academia.edu or even ResearchGate, are the vanguard of micropublics where prestige can be measured with greater accuracy. Thus there are not only the clustering of friends and followers but also specialized “leaders” of friends and followers in different disciplines, interests, professions, activities, and pastimes. Gamers embraced this system of prestige ranking perhaps before other groups because of their online culture but also because of the often close relationship between sport (and its associated ranking) and many games in terms of clear hierarchies of achievement.
Clearly connected to and emerging from this focus on public reputation and prestige is Klout, an online program that allows one to see one’s impact calibrated and compared. Klout claims that it measures influence via surveying Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook in particular, but of course, its techniques, calibrations, and metrics are a secure form of intellectual property that the company maintains in the tradition of Google’s always-improving PageRank system. On its site, it is working to monetize influence by providing “perks” to influencers as it labels those at the top of lists. Klout is also working to draw people to the application and site as a form of online traffic and thereby build on the power of current intercommunication industry and social media players such as Facebook and Twitter.
On the Pulse site of Klout, rankings and lists in various aspects of popular culture have proliferated: the most influential on Broadway or the top nongovernmental organizations are among those ranked. Even the most visible and influential scientists are listed and ranked. Klout is in a very real sense populating and colonizing the “market” of rankings and lists and presents an open challenge to their value and the presumed authority of traditional magazines.
The tendency to rank and position people is expanding. This expansion is part of the presentational media era, where position and rank are part of a more individualized contemporary culture supported by technologies of the social and, specifically, where online connections begin to establish relative value, relative influence, and perhaps relative potential power. In some ways, it is a cloying desire to be noticed, where a ranking helps establish internal and external markers of self-esteem, and Hearn and Shoenhoff (2016) as well as Marwick (2013; 2016) get very close to comprehending this “influencer” culture. With Klout and other forms of ranking, it is the connections that people possess and maintain—we could call these “friends” in Facebook language, “followers” in the Twitterverse, and now “influencers” in Klout’s efforts to hierarchize—that help build profiles and reputations. They are affective personal connections and links that intersect with other affect clusters and thereby build what could be called micropublics: danah boyd (2011) has described these same connections as “networked publics,” but in this ranking of value, we have the reassertion of hierarchies that begin to resemble the way representational media forms (film, television, radio, newspapers, and magazines) produced their celebrities and public personalities for most of the last century.
What is privileged in this new form of presentation of the self and calibration of the value of connection to the formation of a connected micropublic is the ability, first of all, to connect usefully; second of all, to exchange information effectively; third, to converse knowingly and receptively; and fourth and finally, to provide open-ended pathways to others to continue and maintain these developed connections. What is less clear in many of the Klout calibrations is if the quality of the form of intercommunication that is exchanged is somehow determined. By what can be discerned, the measurement of the ranking is determined by the power and influence of the range of people with whom you are connected and with whom you maintain regular forms of exchange. Klout underlines a new spatiality of influence, where those closer to other sources who have large numbers of followers and friends by appropriately connected associations become more identified with this form of social power.
The proliferation of both ranking and presenting the self publicly is insinuating itself into the professions and activities susceptible to a prestige economy structure. The capacity to build algorithms to index and map influence and to individualize those mappings is expanding. Moreover, these techniques of providing elaborate interconnected but also hierarchical matrices of influence are also critical to a changed consumer culture that is now more reliant on these smart “reading/calibrating” technologies of the public self. Thus rankings are just around the corner in the academic world and will be organized around individuals as opposed to institutions. Similarly, the medical and legal professions will begin to have connected rankings to their specializations of knowledge and expertise that will partially be determined by relative and influential online presence and networking. Those professions and activities that are most associated with the manipulation of knowledge and ideas for applied purposes are on course for greater use of rankings and ratings.
How should this expanding world of individual ranking be met? Well, one countertechnique is to develop better ways of ranking and to have universities take the lead in developing these metrics of constructing individual value in a way that is not conjoined to a promotional culture of other products and services, as is the case for the intercommunication industry of social media and the “accounting of activity” that has become the basis for much of its perceived and real economic value. This kind of project requires the building of a slightly different network of research, one well connected to the disciplines and professions, but also one that is reliant on the tools of information science and econometrics: what is interesting is that any of a large number of universities have all of these forms of expertise in place. Interestingly, some of the largest publishing houses are beginning to service the need to rank at least for universities. Taylor and Francis’s ownership and expansion of the influence of the Web of Science and the Social Science Citation Index are exercising their own clout with a C across that part of our professional academic world obsessed with rankings.