Outside the Frame: The Ritual of the Year-End List

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Amanda HirschFreelance writer Amanda Hirsch, former editorial director of PBS Interactive, blogs about documentaries and the Web in her column, Outside the Frame, published every other Wednesday.

It’s that time of year again. No, I’m not referring to Christmas, or “the holidays.” Nor am I referring to the winter solstice, New Years or festive binge drinking. Instead, I refer to the annual cultural tradition of year-end lists.

What is it that prompts us to summarize a year in list format? Where and when did this tradition start? Were our prehistoric forebears moved to write lists on the walls of their caves, or was it competition for newsstand sales that prompted this trend much later in our history?

Whatever their origins, year-end lists are now as much of an annual tradition as getting drunk at the company holiday party, or resolving to start going to the gym again come January 1. And the Web is these lists’ greatest enabler, allowing any Tom, Dick or Jane to add to the fray.

Suddenly, newspapers and magazines aren’t the only ones telling us what’s hot or not, or what the year’s best albums were. Heck, my own husband — a computer programmer, for goodness sakes! — posted a “Best Music of 2008” list. Sure, a search for “best album 2008″ in Google brings up the likes of MTV and Spin Magazine, but the first search result is Metacritic, a site that indexes a range of critical reviews to help music fans make informed decisions; in other words, a user-focused Web service outranks some of the biggest names in music media. Music aggregation service Last FM goes a step further, compiling its “best of” lists based not on any critic’s judgement, but on what its users have actually listened to most often in the past year.

In the spirit of the season, here’s my list of favorite year-end lists from around the Web (based on lists posted by December 23, 2008):
1. Worst Band Names of 2008 from The Onion. Trust me — the names in the heavy metal category rawk.
2. Martha Stewart’s Best Desserts of 2008. I just think it’s hilarious to think of the staff meeting where they argued over which cupcake would win “best cupcake of ’08.”
3. Crunks 2008: The Year in Media Errors and Corrections from freelance journalist and author Craig Silverman. Example, from Slate:
“In the June 20 ‘Culturebox,’ Jonah Weiner stated that Lil Wayne was the first hip-hop artist to fantasize about eating his competition. Other rappers have contemplated consuming their rivals.”
4. Google Zeitgeist offers a fascinating look at the global zeitgeist as measured by what we’re searching for on Google with its Fastest Rising Search Terms of 2008 list. Fun party trick: compare popular search terms by country.
(See also: Time‘s list of the top 10 buzzwords of ’08. Hockey moms, anyone?)
5. And, to end on a feel-good note: Grist magazine’s Top Eco-Heroes of 2008. (If feel-good ain’t your style, see also: Top Eco-Villians.) Vote for your faves.

But enough about me. What are your favorite best/worst lists of 2008? And why do you think these lists, or lists in general, have become such a ritual way for us to document our lives? Share your thoughts and links in the comments section below.

Amanda Hirsch
Amanda Hirsch
Amanda Hirsch is former editorial director of PBS Interactive.