Popularity contest

In the New York Times magazine there’s an article about how you can become a temporary autistic savant by zapping your brain with electromagnetic pulses. It’s an interesting topic, and my son is autistic, so I mailed it to my wife. Then I noticed, below the “E-Mail This Article” icon, there was a “Most E-Mailed Articles” icon. It leads to the
Top 25 Most E-Mailed Articles From the New York Times page. And whaddya know, the piece I picked was today’s most emailed article. I felt strangely validated.

I’ve become a big fan of these lists. I used to eschew them as pointless popularity contests, representing something faddish and frothy, but not worth tapping into. But I’ve come to believe they save me a lot of time. The key thing here is that they are based on what people do rather than what they say they do. It’s entertaining to look at the top list of emailed items and say not only “hey, this is interesting” but also “I wonder why this topic is so popular?” I’m sure the editors and reporters feel the same way. Wouldn’t you be the proud young Jason Blair to realize your article was the most emailed piece that week?

We do the same thing with our MATLAB Central web site: we list the most popular files on the assumption it is a useful guideline for future visitors to see where past visitors went. Yahoo has a Most Emailed Photos list which is almost always either sexy, gory, or bizarro in some way. They have an Editor’s Pick list too, full of well-chosen well-taken photos, but who wants to see that? Show me what the people want to see! That’s the enduring appeal of pop culture: if the thing in question it isn’t interesting in itself, then it’s interesting to consider why it’s interesting to so many other people. Somebody must be reading all those Louis L’Amour books.

By the way, I was going to say that what I really wanted was an RSS feed for the NY Times most-emailed list. But once the thought occurred to me, it didn’t take me 15 seconds to find out it already existed: http://www.newsisfree.com/HPE/xml/feeds/57/5057.xml

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