Many people like to rank things. Many people think that the correct way to present a ranked list is to organize the items on it from worst-to-best, and are wrong. Here is a helpful list of reasons why ranking things best-to-worst is better.
1. It’s funnier.
A list that begins with the lowest-ranked entry and ends with the highest makes a journey from darkness to light. This is what we want our experience of life to be like; when we imagine a healthful progression, a functional response to the events of the day, the long upward struggle of mankind from the swamps of our nascence, we think of going from bad to good. Inspirational stories begin in misery and end in triumph. A list structured in this way is uplifting. “Uplifting” is a fine thing to be, for orators and Mother’s Day cards and airplanes. On the other hand, it is not very funny. Positivity is not very funny.
On the other hand, a list that begins with the best entry and ends with the worst, if it is done well, is funny. Good-to-bad is a more fertile setup for humor, because it is negative, and negativity is funnier than positivity. Failure is funnier than triumph; disappointment is funnier than affirmation. Even the statement “This fuckin’ sucks” is funnier than “This is fuckin’ great.”
Good comedians do not tell comic anecdotes about great, satisfying sex; they tell comic anecdotes about the time they were excited for great sex and then fell down an open manhole and died. Wile E. Coyote cartoons do not end with the coyote sitting down to a nourishing meal, but with the image of the Roadrunner holding up a “The End!” sign as he cruises away on the bus that just flattened the protagonist.
Human beings are funnier when we are expressing negative emotions than when we are expressing positive ones. That is because the need to process negative emotions is the entire reason why human beings developed humor in the first place. A world of contentment and bliss would not include jokes and laughter, because the purpose of jokes and laughter is to transform bad stuff into good stuff, or at least small stuff.
You could say, “Well, that is fine and good, but that is not really an argument for putting the worst thing last; it is an argument for doing a good job of writing about the worst thing.” But, you are only saying that because you do not know how jokes work and are a dingus.
2. It creates a better kind of tension, and a better kind of release.
A good list is like a good story, in that it creates tension and then releases it. A worst-to-best list is shitty and stupid and worthless because it creates weak tension: You hope your favorite, say, Ritter Sport variety comes out on top, sure, but almost all readers get a dose of relief right at the beginning, when they learn that at least their favorite won’t be the worst. And then, every single entry you read, if it isn’t the Ritter Sport variety you’re rooting for, your relief grows. And then the release is weak, too: You’ve already learned you don’t have the worst taste on earth, and all that last entry on the list can do is affirm what you already thought. “Huh. This internet person agrees with me. Cool.” That’s boring. Bare affirmation is boring.
A best-to-worst list, by contrast, creates strong tension. If it is well-made and has a reason to exist and ranks things worth ranking, then most readers will not find their personal favorite in the first spot, and will immediately become both a) affronted, and b) tense. Because they know that the last spot on the list is out there, laying in wait, preparing to pounce and tell them they’re the biggest idiots who ever lived.
With each entry, a small segment of the readership gets a small measure of relief, but human empathy keeps them on the hook: They must know who will lose this round of Russian Roulette. By the time you get to the end, everybody is on the edge of their seats, ready to fight, ready to take their outrage to the comments and Twitter and Facebook, ready to post counter-lists on their dipshit blogs. And then, oh God, the glorious release: If the list is well-made and has a reason to exist and ranks things worth ranking, it rightly gives the dishonor of the last spot to something well-known and wrongly liked by a broad population of thin-skinned weenies with bad opinions, and the universe explodes. (Here is a prime example.)
“But, hey!” you are saying, like a jerk: “This only works with lists that have unexpected bests and worsts! What about lists where the best thing and worst thing are pretty obvious?”
The answer to that is simple: Those lists do not belong on the fucking internet.
3. It suits the only kinds of lists worth making.
A ranking with a safe best and a safe worst has no reason to exist. “States Of Existence, Ranked,” with Health in the best spot and Intractable Suffering For All Eternity in the worst, is a bad list. “Kinds Of Sex, Ranked,” with Good Sex in the best spot and No Sex in the worst, is a bad list. You get the picture. If your writing—even your list-writing—affirms a safe way of understanding the world, you are a stooge and are wasting your life.
This is not to say that items should be ranked dishonestly for the purpose of trolling. Items should be ranked honestly! But, if your honest ranking has, say, Citizen Kane as the best movie (which has been the boring mainstream consensus view for longer than virtually anyone reading this has been alive) and Gigli as the worst, why the fuck are you posting it on the internet? The culture at large already thinks Citizen Kane is the best movie and Gigli is the worst; did the culture at large have a particular need to know that you agree with it?
A case study in this is Max Read’s sandwich rankings, the single most useless and incompetently structured list ever posted on the internet. Not only does it rank the sandwiches worst-to-best, it also gives the worst spots to lesser-known sandwiches like the Elvis, the Fat Darrell, and the St. Paul Sandwich (which are safe choices because few readers will have a particular feeling about them) and reserves the top spots for embarrassingly safe and well-known choices (lobster roll, grilled cheese, Italian hoagie). Think about what this list actually communicates. It says: Unfamiliar things are worse than familiar things. Fear and incuriosity and ignorance are cool and good.
Does the world need this sandwich list? No. It does not. This sandwich list is cowardly puke. You get to the end of it, and the only thing you’ve been forced to confront is the sad fact that you’ll never get those 45 seconds back. It is a disservice to readers.
The most important thing a ranked list worth posting on the internet must do is challenge readers with hard truth at both ends. It must assert, boldly and in the face of widespread ignorance and persecution, the unpopular but inarguable truth that green is the best of the tubular freezer-pop colors, and blue the worst. If it does not do this, it is cowardly puke.
A best-to-worst order suits a courageous, truth-telling list, because right off the bat a courageous, truth-telling list will challenge and enrage almost everyone, rather than giving them the relief of knowing their favorite isn’t the worst. It roils their bowels and inflames their loins and engorges their faces. This list subverts my paradigms and questions my sense of self, goes their thought process. Therefore, I must tweet it.
4. It has the ethics.
An ethical practitioner of list journalisms rightly is skeptical of good things and repulsed by shilling. Therefore she dispenses with the positive part of the list in perfunctory fashion, right at the beginning, to get to the good stuff. The ethical stuff. The stuff that sucks.
A list organized in the opposite fashion proceeds as a coronation parade. It is arrayed to climax with praise for something good. If it is ranking branded properties—superheroes, say—it amounts to a commercial. That is bias journalisms, and those are bad.
5. It suits certain editorial sensibilities better.
Like, for example, Deadspin’s. We cover a gross industry saturated with PR and fluffed endlessly by a courtier press. ESPN produces, by far, the most and most visible sports coverage in our culture, and a grotesque quantity of it amounts to shameless promotional work for the corporation’s business partners. As a meaningful alternative to this, at Deadspin we orient ourselves around our skepticism. Skepticism is what brought this collection of sour people together at this website. We point at shit that sucks, and we laugh at it. Both in principle and dispositionally, it suits us. It is who we are.
This is not to say that we don’t like things. Of course we do! But, we often employ the things we like as commentary on the things we do not like. Again, because it’s who we are, as people and as a publication. A best-to-worst list suits us better, and we feel we’re entitled to that, because we make a good website, and doing things this way has never produced any demonstrably bad outcome for us or for the underutilized executive types who might think to make arbitrary and needless rules about something as silly as this.
6. Your readers consistently have turned out for lists organized this way.
Like, for example, Deadspin’s! Our readers read our lists and share them and make holy war over them in the comments. Our readers broadly share our editorial sensibility, which is why they are our readers. Our readers are smart and good and like things that are good.
7. It suits embedded silliness much better.
In a best-to-worst ranked list, you can throw an absurd gag entry in there toward the end, to dramatize just how bad the very worst thing on the list is. This pulls a neat double duty. It gets a laugh while also heaping extra scorn on the list’s worst entry—which is to say, it entertains people while also making them even more mock-angry than they were a moment before. If done right (that is to say, if kept small and deadpan), this silly gag builds some momentum through repetition over a series of lists, which is another neat trick: By staying the same, it gets funnier, and the series of lists becomes, itself, a weird sort of story.
This does not work in a list ordered worst-to-first. If the second-to-last item on the list is “Being bodily assumed into Paradise,” that is not funny. Ranking things worst-to-first ruins the opportunity for this neat little fillip.
8. Being hit by a car.
9. It makes sense.
The winner of a race does not come last. The winner of a race comes first. Duh.
Photo via me