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Charting the Tech Sector’s Obsession With Charts

Amazon is just the latest tech company trying to make itself an arbiter of popularity

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

The New York Times best-seller list is 86 years old, yet it still propels books to greater media attention, publishing industry buzz, and retail sales every week. It’s a tastemaking metric so broadly known that retailers often sell books that make the list in their own section of the store. And now Amazon, the world’s largest online bookstore, would like nothing more than to supplant it.

Last Thursday, the e-tail giant introduced a pair of new weekly charts that aim to become the go-to signifiers of commercial success. The “Top 20 Most Sold” list will track sales on Amazon.com, Audible.com, and in Amazon’s physical stores, as well as books rented through its subscription service. The “Top 20 Most Read” will track daily Kindle readers and Audible listeners on titles to capture which books people are actually reading, rather than buying to look impressive on the bookshelf.

The Amazon announcement doesn’t mention the Times best-seller list by name, but it’s not subtle in casting aspersions on the well-known charts. Book lovers will finally find out “what’s really being read” and “what’s really being bought or borrowed” thanks to Amazon Charts, the company promises. These charts will be “based on reading engagement and sales data, rather than an opinion-based list,” Amazon vice president David Naggar vows. No. 1 New York Times best-selling author Patricia Cornwell even drops in to plug the new lists. “Exciting and forward-thinking, it will accurately represent what people are reading and investing their time into,” she said in a statement.

Why is so much salt being seasoned upon the Times? Strangely, because like any good modern tech company, it’s guarding a secret algorithm: The newspaper won’t disclose exactly how its best-seller lists are calculated. The Times surveys booksellers around the country — it won’t say which ones — then uses a statistical weighting methodology to extrapolate national sales. The human editors of the charts, housed in the Times’ news department, can also make subjective value calls about which lists individual titles should land on, or if they should land on a list at all. Books can be punted from the best-seller lists if they’re deemed “evergreen.” Lists for certain genres are sometimes unceremoniously dropped, depriving writers of the immediate credibility the best-selling distinction bestows. And conservatives regularly accuse the Times of downranking or excluding right-leaning works. Despite these hints, how exactly a title makes the list is mostly a mystery.

The Times says it has to be secretive about its methods to stop authors and publishers from gaming the system, which they regularly try to do anyway. Meanwhile, Amazon is hyping up its own charts as a democratic alternative to the Times’ “opinion-based” lists. But the tech giant is hardly a paragon for transparency — we don’t even know how many Prime subscribers Amazon has. And like the Times, Amazon Charts won’t include actual sales figures.

It should come as a shock to no one that Amazon is more interested in influence than democratizing book best-seller lists. The company, like many of its tech peers, has effectively disrupted the way we consume media but not the benchmarks we use to determine its importance. Spotify introduced a weekly Top 50 list in 2013 (and now faces off against similar lists from Shazam, iHeartRadio, and YouTube), but standing atop the Billboard Hot 100 remains the one accomplishment that matters to artists like Drake. Twitter and Nielsen tried to make tweets a new barometer for measuring the popularity of shows, but it’s overnight viewership ratings that advertisers still care about. Silicon Valley giants are scarily effective at driving our behavior via algorithms and design choices, but when they explicitly try to declare what is popular or culturally relevant, people tend to tune out.

When tech companies hype up their own charts, they also risk revealing raw data that could undermine their own claims of culture-shifting importance. (Twitter has spent years trying to track and prove the value of the “second-screen experience” while watching live TV, but companies’ hashtag use in Super Bowl ads has fallen considerably.) Perhaps that’s why Netflix has taken the opposite tack from its peers, offering little in the way of data or rankings about the popularity of its shows. The secrecy is partially a negotiating tactic to keep production studios in the dark about the value of the shows they license, but it’s also a PR strategy. While Spotify and Amazon are largely selling commodified products that can be found at countless digital storefronts, Netflix is currently trying to convince the press and the public that its exclusive original programming is must-see TV. That would be tougher to do with a weekly ratings list that showed an old bedtime-binger like Parks and Recreation was outperforming a new show like 13 Reasons Why. An outside analytics firm called Symphony Advanced Media tried to create its own ratings system for Netflix, but the streaming company continually disputed the accuracy of the ratings and Symphony abandoned the project in April. Instead we’re stuck with the sporadic viewership tidbits Netflix occasionally divulges, such as the unsettling fact that subscribers have watched half a billion hours of Adam Sandler movies on the service.

There is one digital platform that’s created a culturally relevant list, the type I could imagine being used in a “rising up the charts” movie montage — the Apple App Store. Like any good chart, the App Store rankings manage to mix commercial and creative ambitions into a romantic ideal; we’re led to believe anyone, anywhere could hit it big with the right combination of talent, fortitude, and dumb luck. The brief hysteria over Flappy Bird, a dead-simple game that topped the charts in 2013, was partially due to a collective befuddlement about why this particular banal distraction had managed so many downloads. Best sellers across media types, whether they are good or not, pique our curiosity about what our fellow humans find valuable, and why.

Can Amazon tap into that curiosity with its new charts? If the company gets its way, writers will soon be putting “Amazon best-selling author” on their book jackets and in their Twitter bios. But that shift will require a collective buy-in from writers, publishers, and readers that Amazon’s figures have a significance beyond being a simple ledger of purchases. It doesn’t matter what’s popular according to raw numbers. What matters is when something achieves a metric of popularity that causes other people to notice, and wonder if they’re missing out.