July 1, 2016
I love reading top ten lists; we do them a lot here at Tech.co. But there’s one type that’s a lot less useful and a lot more harmful than it seems: the type that features “influential people.”
The benefit of a top ten list is to recognize the people who deserve it. The more niche an industry is, the more in need of being highlighted the people are. And the lists often help provide a resource: You can easily see how a list of the most active VC firms in each state or the 31 top coding bootcamps of 2016 could come in handy, I’m sure.
Also useful: When you rely on hard data to construct the list. Want to know the top 20 VC firms in mobile? Go through all the app downloads and add them up.
“Influence” Is Subjective
People who make lists of the most influential people within an industry rarely use strong data. They rely on name recognition. In other words, they highlight everyone that people already love. It’s good for getting shares on their articles. But it makes the list less useful. Worse, the list is only as accurate as its authors. If they have a blind spot, it’s glaring.
One Newsweek special issue, “Founding Fathers of Silicon Valley,” illustrates this problem, as Jessi Hempel explained on Backchannel:
“Seven faces graced the cover: Bill Gates. Mark Zuckerberg. David Packard. Bill Hewlett. Jeff Bezos. Elon Musk. Steve Jobs.
Three words for you, Newsweek: What the hell?
Ok, put aside the fact that three of those men don’t live in the Bay Area. At least one of them wasn’t born when the valley’s orchards were first being transformed into ground zero for the computer revolution. And any history that holds up seven white men as the founders of the computer revolution obscures the true collective nature of innovation.
Most important, it eliminates a valuable recruiting tool for getting women into tech, and for propelling them to more powerful positions: representation. As Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund said in the 2011 documentary Miss Representations: ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.'”
The Lists Ignore the Rest of the Industry
Another more recent erasure concern surrounds another influential people list: Collusion Media‘s Most Influential People in Podcasts. It’s been taken down since, thanks to the less than enthusiastic response. Collusion’s apology explains why:
“The list was criticized for having 20 men and two women. In speaking with Julie Shapiro, Executive Producer of Radiotopia, she said this has been an ongoing industry issue where the ratio of men to women in prominent roles and discussions “always seems about 10 to 1.” Her disappointment, she said, was that we had a chance to change those numbers and we didn’t. Followers on social media scolded us all day long for the lack of women and people of color on the list.”
Nick Quah, podcast newsletter reporter extraordinaire, sums up the whole influential people lists problem pretty well towards the bottom of last week’s column:
“I generally hold a distaste for ‘most influential people’ lists. They often strike me frustratingly hagiographic, myopic, and reductive — painfully uninterested in the realities of how many people and how much it takes to simply do anything. Which is to say, I find them distasteful largely because the spirit that informs such enterprises will never quite be done justice; such lists are intents to honor individuals, but its political nature — which is inherent despite its pageantry — ultimately dishonors the context around those individuals. To put it simply: it’s impossible to make a list that’ll properly do right by the community.”
On the other hand, as Collusion Media pointed out, there are most influential people lists that address individual problems, like this one, The 22 Most Influential Women in Podcasting. But regardless of their scope, no list can capture an entire industry through the most well-known figures in it.
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