Lists Are Reductive
Best-of and worst-of lists require a category in order to be at all interesting. No one's going to read "Best products ever!" Okay, they probably would, but you know what I mean. "Best smartphone over $200." "Best white 11-inch tablet made by companies that start with the letter 'A'" -- you get the drift. The problem is these reductive subjects are simply convenient ways for us journalists to include as many products in a category as possible in order to not offend anyone while at the same time making it clear which ones we think are best.
But once the list is over, you, the reader and subsequent consumer, are left with little more than a shopping list with pithy little explanations as to why a product is only second-best in a particular category. Interesting? Yes. Useful? Arguable.
Lists Are Never Right
While the lists you'll find on sites like Engadget are based on real research and objective review processes, there's no way they can be right. While a particular product may be best for one person it could be the worst for another. The better lists explain this with disclaimers pointing out that the rankings are simply the learned opinions of people who know a thing or two about this stuff, but there's no way they are right for everyone.
Right now you're thinking, "Thanks, Captain Obvious!" But wait -- as technology gets more complex, it also gets more personal, and it's important that we stop and think about the divergent ways different people use it. My smartphone is entirely different than yours, even if they're the same exact product SKU.
Let me drill this in with one last example from Captain Obvious. For me, the best gaming console out there is the PlayStation 3, mainly because I need to play Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception and any game from Team Ico. But if you were into, say, Halo, you'd obviously want the Xbox 360. We're both right. Or wrong.
Lists Create Fanboy Maelstroms
No two people have ever agreed completely on a best-of or worst-of list. This is both good and bad. It's good because it means people will read the list, agree / disagree and share it with their friends to wreak argumentative havoc. And then it's bad because it means people will wreak argumentative havoc.
While lists are compelling and interesting, they're also divisive. Chances are the comments below this very article will be filled with people disagreeing on the order of items here even though I didn't put them in any particular order.
Lists Are Always Incomplete
Finally, the reason I dislike lists the most is because they are always incomplete. There's always an item or product that could have -- should have -- been included, but because of the reductive category -- see above -- or because the writer was just being lazy, it just didn't make it in.
On the qualitative side, we're never satisfied with the explanation given by a writer as to why an item is where it's at in the list. We want to ask, "Why is this gadget No. 1 and the other is No. 10? Tell us. Tell us why it's nine spots better." And then when you do, your list will still be incomplete because a completely new product just came out that completely changed the category.
But we'll just include that in the 2013 lists.
Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.