In 1983, just as Pittsburgh's job and population exodus was reaching its nadir, U.S. News & World Report published its first annual list of the best colleges and universities. Hospital rankings came in 1990. Then came lists of law firms, automobiles, mutual funds and even vacation spots.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the rankings were good magazine filler — but now, in the Internet age, they are the main driver of traffic to the U.S. News website, accounting for half of the publication's monthly page hits.
"It was a new thing. Not that no one had ever done a list of colleges, but it was one of the first times anyone had brought a methodology to it," said Chad Smolinski, senior vice president at U.S. News. "It quickly became an enormous franchise."
America — the world, really — loves a good list, and if that list happens to rank or measure its components in a manner that is reasonably scientific, so much the better.
Lists drive enormous Web traffic to U.S. News, Buzzfeed and Forbes.com. Smithsonian's Archives of American Art staged an exhibition of lists and it proved so popular that the exhibit spawned a book ("Art Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists' Enumerations"). The Louvre in Paris did the same thing; Italian essayist and philosopher Umberto Eco's exhibition of lists was a big draw for the museum in 2009.
"What does culture want?" he asked, in an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel. "It [wants] to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. ... It has an irresistible magic."
The one list we're missing is a ranking of which cities enjoy lists the most, but, surely, Pittsburgh would be near the top of it.
Maybe it's the region's small-town underdog personality. Maybe it's insecurity. Maybe it's the fact that the city spent decades rebounding from its post-steel depths. But Pittsburghers seem to love it whenever the city appears on a "smartest city" or "most livable" or "best places to visit" list (and cringed each time Forbes named Pittsburgh the biggest pit for singles).
"The thing that's probably different about us is that [Pittsburgh] has not been viewed as a place that was an attractive place to come to," said Harold D. Miller, president of Future Strategies, adjunct professor of public policy and management at Carnegie Mellon University, and a commentator on regional economic and civic issues.
"Anything that makes the region look good [is] contrary to what general perception was of Pittsburgh."
The Internet and its various spawn make it easier to share such rankings, and it also makes it easier to compile them. Computer-assisted number crunching makes statistical analysis far easier than it might have been two decades ago, removing such endeavors from the realm of university research and democratizing it.
Shorthand: Everyone can do it. Which is not to say everyone can do it well.
Because of research and university funding cutbacks, "there's less data than there used to be, but it's easier to get the data," Mr. Miller said. Visit a website or two, "get some numbers, throw them together and call it a measure. ... They matter, not because they're right, but because people pay attention to them."
But why do people pay attention to them?
"Lists make information manageable," said Jillian Steinhauer, a New York City writer, editor and self-described compulsive lister. It makes sense to her, she said, that lists — both the arbitrary kind and the more scholarly kind — prosper on the Internet.
"There's so much information" overload, she said. Top 10 lists and their ilk "break things down into bite-sized amounts of information [that] usually doesn't require crazy amounts of comprehension skills."
In other words, these things are often easy reading, which makes for good click-bait.
But listing ("49 things you never knew about 'Game of Thrones' ") is distinctly different from measuring and ranking, and it's in the ranking — and in the besting of peer cities — where Pittsburghers seem to derive particular satisfaction.
"Lists that are developed utilizing indicators of economic vitality and investment are certainly among the most interesting and useful to our organization," said Jeremy Waldrup, CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. "Although, even lists indicating a great dining scene certainly have value and point to quality of life issues that we believe have only improved in the Golden Triangle over recent years."
The very act of ranking something implies that a level of knowledge and authority is held by the list's composer, and it confers superiority on the "winners" in the ranking in ways we may not fully and psychologically appreciate.
In one notable experiment, researchers showed two groups of test subjects 48 songs listed in order of "most downloaded." They played the songs, then asked the subjects to download their favorite songs. One group saw the real popularity rankings, while the other saw reversed rankings. In other words, the least-downloaded song was listed at No. 1.
Results? Both groups, even after hearing the songs, were most likely to download the No. 1 song, even though one group saw bogus rankings.
"Essentially, Top 10 lists have a kind of placebo effect," writes Derek Thompson of The Atlantic. "They don't just tell us what to read or listen to. They tell us what to like. And they make us think we like something just because we saw it next to the number." (Even so, "many 'good' songs recouped much of their original popularity in spite of our manipulation," the researchers said, a triumph of art over artifice.)
For cities, the true value of these rankings, Mr. Miller said, is often less about the data they include and more about the audience who reads them.
"Does it appear in [a] publication or a source that is credible, does it reach a population that you care about?" he said.
If a study meets those criteria, a place like Pittsburgh is compelled to take it seriously. For example, if a publication aimed at entrepreneurs says Pittsburgh is a lousy place to start a business, that's a worry, Mr. Miller said.
That's true even if the ranking appears flawed, he said.
He points to various annual reports that rank Pennsylvania poorly when it comes to its high corporate net income tax rate (which stands at 9.99 percent, and has for years, despite repeated legislative campaigns to reduce it). It's one of the highest rates in the country, and as a result, Pennsylvania often gets ranked poorly on studies that measure tax-friendliness for businesses.
The corporate net income tax rate "really shouldn't matter, [because] local taxes are unusually low" for businesses in Pennsylvania, Mr. Miller said. But collecting data on 50 different corporate tax rates for each state is a much easier proposition than figuring in all of the various tax rates for Pennsylvania's counties, school districts and municipalities.
These sorts of rankings, scientifically valid or not, carry weight with civic leaders because people use them to make decisions. "Where do they live, look for a job, locate a business ... it's a pretty complex process to sort out, [and] anything that helps simplify that decision helps," Mr. Miller said.
Good rankings end up in pamphlets and marketing materials. Bad ones can lead to negative earned media that's hard to erase (as in that 2004 Forbes study ranking Pittsburgh dead last for its singles scene, below Cleveland and Cincinnati).
But obsessing over comparative metrics can be counterproductive at times. Those U.S. News college rankings that launched the whole enterprise — and eventually allowed U.S. News to get out of the periodical publishing business — became such an event that colleges often tried to manipulate the numbers, to improve their rankings relative to other schools.
Some gave scholarship money to students who observably didn't need it, just to say they did. Others outright lied about SAT scores on incoming freshmen. Baylor University paid students who were already granted admission to retake the SAT exam in a bid to boost its average test scores. Some university presidents even got bonuses that were tied to their U.S. News rankings.
Schools do it, cities do it, "everyone does it," Ms. Steinhauer said. We all compare ourselves to our peers from time to time, so maybe that's why seeing our city — by extension, ourselves — appear on a "16 Reasons Why Pittsburgh Is The Greatest City On The Planet" list is a happy, if fully meaningless, reminder of how far this city has come in the last few decades.
"When there's so much bad news, so many negative things, [appearing in a] stupid BuzzFeed list is really appealing," Ms. Steinhauer said.
— Bill Toland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2625.
First Published May 14, 2014 1:36 PM