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The Trouble With Crowdsourced “Best Of” Lists

September 27, 2011

Goodreads was all over the Internet about a week ago, when it debuted a feature that recommended books for you based on your ratings of books you’d already read.  I’ve tried it out, and it’s decent enough–less good than, say, Pandora, but better than iTunes’ Genius engine.

The point being that I got an account (come find me!  I need friends! :3) and have since been exploring the site, including its online book clubs and its democratic, vote-driven lists–e.g. Best Books of the 20th Century or The Best Epic Fantasy.

I’ll be using the latter as an example here, as it includes what is fast becoming my biggest pet peeve about SF&F “best of” polls, lists, and so on across the Web.

Here’s the thing: science fiction and fantasy are predominately epic genres.  They tend toward the series format, often running to 8, 9, or a dozen books even when they’re not a traditional “epic fantasy” or similarly epic space opera.  A tame format for a bestselling fantasy series (that is, the kind that tends to show up on a democratic “best of” list) is a trilogy.

So, my list pet peeve is ultimately very simple.  It is: make up your minds about whether to consider books individually or as a series.  I won’t try to deliberate here about which would be better; obviously there are strong and weak volumes in any series, but fans might have strong affection for the whole shebang.

As of this writing, the #1 spot on this Goodreads list is (unsurprisingly, given how crazily popular it is) the Harry Potter boxset.  Okay: a series.  At #3 are CS Lewis’ Narnia books, again as a series.  Interspersed among the top vote-getters are various first volumes as individual entries: A Game of Thrones, The Eye of the World, The Fellowship of the Ring, et cetera.  I’m still relatively all right with this.  Tough to judge a first volume versus a series, but not enough to induce serious teeth-gnashing.  Not on a list that’s always changing and just for fun in the first place.

No, what really gets me is when the same series gets multiple entries on the list–in both single-book and whole-series form.  Take The Lord of the Rings, arguably both the best and the most foundational epic fantasy series of all time.  For part of the list, it’s doled out piecemeal: The Hobbit takes the #4 spot (why, I don’t know), while Fellowship sits pretty at #6.  And then we run into “The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings” at #17.  Add the votes for all 3 of these top-scoring entries together, and you get a higher score than current #1 Harry Potter.  (Granted, you could probably also find each of the 7 HP books in their own solo spots down the list, and add those scores together.  That’s beside the point.)

This whole mess isn’t just a problem because it’s irritably inefficient, or even because it’s inaccurate.  The presence of Chris Paolini’s overwhelmingly mediocre Eragon on this list at #10–above candidates like Earthsea and Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series–is a good guide to how seriously I take these results (i.e. very much not).  It’s a problem because it makes this list repetitive and boring, to boot.  And that is definitely not the point of a social hub like Goodreads.

Simple issue, long rant.  Any small tweaks that would make your favorite social networking site a lot better?  Let me know in the comments.

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