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The perils of ranking

Today, I discovered I was listed on a Top 100 of UK Twitter users by The Independent newspaper based on the algorithm from PeerIndex. I was #47, since you ask, same as Armando Iannucci. It’s not that long since I made it on to a similar PeerIndex list published elsewhere. It’s all very flattering…

But, how can anyone boil down the worth of individuals, organisation, or other entities using half a dozen (almost random) measures? Using some secret algorithm is then used to put those entities, whether twitter users, websites in search engine results or schools and colleges into a ranked order that too many people set incredible store by thereafter.

It’s quite timely that one of my intellectual heroes, Malcolm Gladwell, writing in the most recent issue of the New Yorker, takes on this ranking issue and challenges the U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings, an ordered listing of universities. The list has apparently become the cornerstone of a rankings business that has outlasted its initial host. Gladwell suggests that such ranking is redundant in the modern world (and maybe always has been). There is no way a complex, multivariate phenomenon can be distilled down to a position in a single linear list. Even the presenters of the BBC’s Top Gear car show recognise that there are variables, such as body weight and wet roads, when ranking its “star in a reasonably priced car“.

I think this ranking fail applies equally as well to college honour rolls as it does to twitter users. They’re all complex entities after all and recognition of that is perhaps more flattering than being number 47 on a Top 100.

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