On Clickbait, Assisted Self-Aggrandizement, and the Arbitrary Nature of Subjective & Objective Litany
Every year, in late December or early January, you start seeing three distinct types of fitness posts: those wrapping up the current year; those making predictions for the coming year; and lists of all the fitness professionals who either killed it last year or will kill it this year.
I’m going to discuss that last item, for the undeniable reason that these lists are bullshit.
Let me start by saying that I want you to read this post as a sort of commentary on the industry and its practices, rather than as a rant. A rant would require me to be worked up about something. I’m not worked up1, I’m mostly just incredulous that no one has pointed any of this out yet.
Normally, I don’t engage when these lists come out. I rarely read through to see who’s included, and I almost never re-post them on social media. The main reason I don’t bother sharing them, other than thinking they’re patently stupid, is because I personally feel that (given my frequent inclusion) to do so mostly just comes off as self-congratulatory at best and public masturbation at worst.
Sure, I could do what everyone else does and tell you how surprised and flattered I am to be included, but I find false humility to be at least as irritating as self-aggrandizement, and usually more—so I’ll forego the whole aww shucks routine for myself, even as everyone else rushes to share.
On that note, I do feel compelled to acknowledge that all the social media auto-fellatio provides a great opportunity to
mock observe those who seem not to have a firm grasp on the words they use.
Bro. You are not “humbled” to be included on some random list. You are “honored,” or perhaps “feeling undeserving.”
To be humbled means to have your standing reduced; you are using it when your standing has been elevated.
Here’s an example of the word used properly:
“I thought I was strong, but then this dude humbled me by warming up with my max.”
More or less, to humble someone means to force humility upon them; to demonstrate to them, by word or by deed, that they’re not quite as impressive as they seem to think. To be humbled by something is rarely an enjoyable experience.
As a final aside, if the word humbled actually did mean what you think it means, re-posting the list you’ve been added to on your social media channels very clearly indicates that you do not, in fact, feel underserving of having been included.
So, really, you’re stupid twice. Congratulations.
My goal here is not to make fun of anyone. Rather, I’m looking to open up a dialogue about these lists in general, if only to make people aware that not all of those “honored” with placement are worth checking out or following. That is, being featured on some list doesn’t necessarily qualify someone to help you.
Let’s get to the point: I was featured on this list by Greatist, published today. So were 99 other people. All of us were made aware a few weeks in advance, and then again today.
Again, I don’t like false humility, so let me be blunt and say that I believe my name belongs on such lists. I’ve earned it. So, yeah, it’s cool, and a nice little feather in the cap. But ultimately meaningless.
As mentioned earlier, these lists are bullshit. I want to tell you why.
These lists come in two forms: subjective and objective; let’s take a look at each on in turn.
These lists are usually found on personal blogs. Basically, some blogger puts together a list of bros who they personally think are the best, or the most awesome, or the most influential, or whatever else.
They’re subjective because everything from inclusion to placement is based solely on the opinion of the author. Which is fine, as it’s a personal blog. (Note that because RFS is no longer a single person blog, everything I write here is exempt from this, and should be taken as universal #truthfact.)
But, we can’t really take these things too seriously. Especially because they’re sort of advertising—it’s a hilariously old but evidently still effective trick to get traffic to your site.
Here’s the breakdown:
Okay, okay. The thought process behind the lists aren’t generally as mercenary as all that. Sometimes it’s just easy “content” or a way to get on the radar of those several levels above you, or just throw some love to your boys. And it’s all good.
One recent example is this list written and curated by Jason Maxwell, published on his site, JMaxFitness.
Now, to be clear, I’m not picking on Jason here. I honestly believe that he’s one of the few who just wants to expose his readers to great people—but he’s certainly not complaining about the traffic I just sent him by posting that link.
More to the point, let’s examine the list. According to Jason, these are the “top” fitness pros he thinks you should follow in 2015. Because it’s totally subjective, there’s no real criteria that we can see, other than Maxwell’s assertion that these are “[s]cience and evidence based fitness professionals [who] have emerged with some of the best information and content on the internet.”
Notwithstanding the inherent difficulty of qualifying what constitutes the “best” content, the list doesn’t seem to follow its espoused directive, which—based on the supplied definition—would seem to be that all of the people on the list publish content that is “science and evidence based.”
A noble premise…but ultimately untrue—a fact that becomes obvious from the very first item on the list.
In the top spot, we have Dan John: a great trainer and helluva nice guy who’s built massive loyalty in the fitness industry by leveraging the one-two punch of being good at his job and reminding everyone of their favorite high school Phys. Ed. teacher2.
This is not to take anything away from Mr. John, who’s a wildly successful and highly effective coach. He is not, however, known for citing studies, scouring PubMed, or writing overly scientific articles; DJ is known for a no-nonsense, old-school approach that “just works.”
None of that means Dan shouldn’t be number one on the list—it just means that the list should have been called “40 Fitness Professionals I Think Are Awesome” and the descriptor should have implied that all individuals on it were chosen for inclusion and ranked based on Maxwell’s level of respect, admiration, affection, or friendship with each of them.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate being invited to the party: Jason said some pretty nice things about me, and even mentioned my screenwriting, which is sweet.
That said, you’ve gotta admit, I don’t exactly fit the implied mold. Sure, my stuff is backed by science, and I cite studies when I think it’s necessary, but for the most part I base my programming on experience over anything else.
I mean, let’s be honest: I’m a lot more likely to pen an article called “Top 5 Anal Sex Mistakes First Timers Make” than I am to write one called “5 Awesome Studies You Need to Read Because They’re Going to Give You New Ammo For Your Internet Arguments.”
All of which is to say, whether they’re click bait or well-intended, subjective lists are basically bullshit, and we shouldn’t really give them much credence.
Typically, lists of this kind are published by larger media outlets, and tend to be both broader and more thoroughly researched. Today’s Greatist piece is a good example.
These lists are objective because there is a pre-determined criteria for inclusion and ranking that’s set into place before names start being considered.
By and large, this is a better system: with regard to any assessment, objectivity is always more reliable than subjectivity. Meaning that, theoretically, the objective list on Greatist should be more informative in all ways than a list on a personal site.
However, there are problems with this model, as well.
Firstly, let’s just establish that larger sites like free traffic just as much—well, more—than bloggers. As such, the intention behind publishing any list can be called into question for a major media site just as easily as a single author blog. That particular wrinkle never changes.
The issues I’m speaking of, however, come from the commitment to objectivity itself. Once a set of criteria is set into place, these sites have to stick to that criteria as closely as possible, or they sacrifice impartiality.
Objective lists can’t measure things like “best content” or “best trainer” because there’s simply no way to measure any of that; it’s all subjective. Instead, these lists measure one or more quantifiable characteristics, and those measurements need to be based on quantifiable variables and unadjusted metrics. Resultant of that, all truly objective lists are somewhat limited.
This brings us back to the Greatist list, for which it’s important to recognize that what’s being measured is influence. That’s it—just influence.
Before anyone passes judgement on the site for the ranking order, remember that Greatist makes no claims to be assessing the individuals included on the list in terms of skill, talent, knowledge, or ability. The list is solely a measure of influence.
Again, this is important because influence is measurable, based on some (objective) variables. Greatist actually has some really specific standards for those things, and the metrics are unquestionable.
But what are the metrics of influence? Stuff like Alexa ranking3, site traffic (measured in unique visits and page views), big media exposure, and social media stats (including Klout score4, total followers, and overall audience engagement).
Taken from the site itself:
When trying to determine the most powerful innovators in this space, we looked at several factors for each candidate…we created a scoring system based on eight measurable categories: website page rank, social media presence, Klout score, number of studies or research published, number of products, professional degrees and certifications, and number of Google News mentions in 2014—all with variable levels of impact on the final score.
While I’m admittedly not privy to the specifics of how heavily each of those individual factors weighs into the equation, based on the order of the list, it’s pretty clear that overall “fame” has a pretty profound effect on things.
For example, Michelle Obama sits comfortably at the top of the list; as FLOTUS, she’s certainly the most famous person on it. Dr. Oz comes in at number two; despite all the controversy surrounding his advice, dude’s got his own TV show, and therefore a lot of influence. And so on.
Now, it would be nice if being famous, or having a lot of “influence” was a real measure of your worth as a fitness professional or health advocate. But influence isn’t necessarily correlated with any characteristic that translates into ability to help people. Some folks on this list have a lot of influence but are woefully unqualified to wield it, and might be doing more harm than good.
Further, influence should never be confused for overall impact—some people who are ranked highly might have a bunch of social media followers, but they’re not making a real difference in the industry.
After all, any list that ranks Instagram celebrity and professional narcissist Jen Selter above Arnold fucking Schwarzenegger is immediately suspect and should be taken with a gain of salt. To the credit of the article and those who wrote it, the folks at Greatist do point this out in their own way, saying of the Instagram queen, “Selter doesn’t have any exercise certifications yet often is found dishing outdated fitness advice, so go ahead and look, but don’t follow along.”
Acknowledgements of incompetence aside, it’s unavoidably off-putting when some know-nothing chick with a great ass is placed so highly above über-genius Eric Cressey or industry godfather Mike Boyle, owing solely to the fact that the aforementioned great ass attracts millions of IG followers who like oogling her and somehow feel that commenting on her social media accounts might one day lead to them banging her. (They may or may not be wrong. Fuck do I know?)
Given all of that, while I’m in favor of objectivity, these lists are ultimately useless when it comes to separating the wheat from the chaff. This wouldn’t be a problem if they were taken for what they were.
My fear—and the reason I wrote this—is that the average reader might look at any of these types of lists and assume that because one person was ranked higher than another, they’re “better.” This is a pretty slippery slope, and it’s both the most obvious and most insidious problem with creating and publishing any arbitrary ranking.
To ameliorate this, these lists usually have some type of qualifier. While I don’t personally care about my own ranking, the Greatist staff gave me some props; probably not because they think I’m a swell guy, but because listing my accomplishments helps demonstrate credibility and drive home that I know what I’m talking about.
I mention this not to impress you, but to impress upon you that even a site publishing a list based on objective metrics relies on the subjective opinions of its editors to help guide the readers towards individuals of quality, and away from those who (like Selter) are in the public eye for reasons other than their ability to provide useful information.
In an ideal world, this system works: the average bear develops some discerning taste, and follows coaches who can actually help them, and head in the right direction with their health and fitness goals.
As you can see, I don’t think much of these lists. I wouldn’t go so far say they’re totally useless, as they have the potential to expose readers to new experts; I just feel they’re apt to create as many headaches as they solve.
If you’re asking me which I think is better, I’d have to say that as unreliable as they can be, subjective lists might have more value.
Despite not being based on anything quantifiable, it stands to reason that as long as the list is written by someone who’s earned your trust, there’s a good chance it’ll feature some other peeps you can trust, too. Then again, maybe you’re in the habit of trusting and following people just because they’re super attractive and they say fuck a lot, in which case you’re already in the right place.
Snark aside, let’s be real: even if I’m not gonna jump for joy over someone anyone thinking I’m cool or influential and putting my mug on their site, I’m also not ignorant to the fact that inclusion on these lists can be leveraged. And I certainly appreciate the links and traffic.
But I never lose sight of the fact that it is ultimately bullshit, and I think time would be better spent writing actual content.
Then again, I just wrote a 2700-word article telling you why lists are stupid, so many next time I’ll just shut up and write some workouts or some shit. I dunno.
In closing: if you’re a reader, don’t place too much value on these fitness lists as a qualifier for whether you should be listening to someone. Be smart and make your own decisions, and
If you’re a fitness professional, try your best not to give a shit about these lists. They’re arbitrary as hell, and will never be a real reflection of the skill or professional value of those mentioned.
If you happen to be added to a list, appreciate it for what is, enjoy the social media juice, and leverage for social proof as best you can; just don’t let being mentioned blow your head up. More importantly, under no circumstances should you let not being included on one make you feel shitty.
Remember, it’s all just dick stroking, anyway. And you don’t need anyone else for that. Because. You know. Masturbation.
Now. With all of that out of the way–I’d love to hear YOUR thoughts on this. So leave some insight to justify me obsessively checking my traffic and engagement stats for the next two days.