Our Obsession with Ranking

We, as humans, are obsessed with ranking things.

I mean, sports are one of the ultimate expressions of ranking. They’re about fostering competition to find the best athletes to play a game defined by sets of arbitrary rules, and the biggest leagues in the world1 occupy so much mindshare that they’ve become major business enterprises. In fact, broadcast rights for professional sports are currently the main and possibly only thing keeping cable television relevant2.

There are plenty of other things encountered in daily life that revolve around identifying the best:

  • Top schools and colleges;
  • Fastest, most dependable, safest cars;
  • Top-selling items at the store;
  • Most popular song or movie or television show;
  • Listicles of the Top X whatever

So it’s not an isolated domain by any means; the idea of ordering things and then looking to the terminal edges is so—foundational—that it’s taught as an important mathematical concept in kindergarten. Most of the time, we don’t even consciously think about our tendencies to rank.

And yet, we also have this innate desire for some level of equity, where the folks at the top aren’t forever entrenched in their positional dominance3. This is sports leagues setting up increasingly byzantine rules to encourage talent distribution among teams4; this is antitrust regulations looking to divert and prevent monopolies; this is cheering on the unlikely tournament participant in classic underdog fashion. We like to recognize and celebrate things that make their way to the top, as long as they don’t stay there too long.

In a recent episode of the Prof G Pod, there was an aside from the guest, Dror Poleg, that I found interesting. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something like:

Digitalization is a democratizing force that gives people more opportunity, but it tends to boil down to more inequality. By making the economy more efficient, it is becoming more unequal.

The context here is in acknowledging that while technology tends to be a democratizing force—increasing access and removing barriers to entry—the way that we obsess about rankings and focus our attention on just “the best” of a category means that the top 1% capture even more of the mindshare/value/wealth generated. Whereas previously there were local maxima created through frictions like geography or language, technology that bridges the gaps to enable access to everyone will eventually encourage much broader competition with a few on top. If ecosystems are naturally winner-take-most, technology has the effect of enlarging that ecosystem and in doing so, producing much fewer winners who each win all that much more.

If we assume that the act of ranking things and preferring the best is simply an integral part of human nature, we have to find ways to counterbalance the power law distributions that inevitably arise from technology’s tendencies of democratization. Algorithms that don’t prioritize serving up what’s already popular, or reviews that deemphasize direct comparisons and numerical scores5—we can certainly tweak systems to be more resilient to the endgame of rampant inequality.

  1. Not to mention events like the Olympics, World Cup, etc.

  2. Slowly but surely though, streaming services are coming for sports as well.

  3. I’m reminded of a short story from The Wandering Earth which explores an extreme endgame, where one person ends up owning everything on a planet.

  4. Not to mention the universal backlash directed to teams that win too often.

  5. Some gaming review outlets went through a shift like this a couple of years back, realizing that review scores tend to devolve reviews into toxic debates pretty quickly; yet, Metacritic persists.

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