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Metric Madness

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Our obsession with brackets and rankings -- in everything from NCAA March Madness to soup -- reflects a desire to give some order to the world, to quantify things that are not generally thought of as quantifiable.

Cinderellas. Buzzer-beaters. Gus Johnson's enthusiastic play-by-play calls.

There's a ton to love about NCAA March Madness, the annual college basketball tournament that appeals to even the most sports-averse, thanks to its mix of lovable underdogs and last-second finishes. The first weekend of the tournament is honestly one of my favorite weekends of the year.

But all this fun comes with a somewhat unfortunate side effect. I don’t just mean the likelihood of losing your tourney pool to those same apathetic fans who base their selections on the kind of mascot or the team color. I'm talking about the resulting bracket-ization of practically everything, which I suppose shouldn't be surprising in our increasingly data-driven world.

Every March, the promotions start popping up – a tournament of local restaurants, of craft beers, of TV shows, of bands (see The Village Voice’s "Sound of the City" feature). Last year, Mental Floss published a list of 12 non-basketball brackets, showing the lengths to which people go to extend the gimmick.

I get it. Brackets are awesome. As I was writing this column, emails popped into my inbox from multiple sports sites, inviting me to register for their tournament challenges as I did last year – and my heart skipped a beat due to irrational excitement. It makes sense that publishers and marketers would try to extend that excitement to other things. Brackets are no-brainers, just like top ten lists, and they’re the gift that keeps on giving, as players come back as the tournament continues, increasing the amount of clicks, interaction, and ad revenue.

Sports and pop culture site Grantland certainly recognizes the appeal. Its Smacketology tournament of characters from The Wire (which PopMatters’ Chris Barsanti accurately called a frustrating exercise in false choices) was a recent popular feature, but it wasn’t the first such stunt. In early February, there was the "Souper Bowl", an epic battle of soup choices ultimately won by clam chowder.

“When you’re in an argument, it’s immensely powerful to have the facts on your side,” said Bill James, in many ways the father of modern sports statistical analysis, during a recent installment of “The B.S. Report” podcast hosted by Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons. In addition to being the world’s foremost authority on Beverly Hills, 90210, Simmons is one of the main proponents in the sports media world of the use of advanced metrics – stats like BABIP and PER and all the others that fans now hear about with increasing frequency.

As moviegoers learned in Moneyball, such stats have changed the ecosystem of sports and upended the whole notion of who and what is valuable (as further proof of the trend, the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, founded in 2006, has now ballooned to over 2,000 attendees, including a representative of nearly every major team). These metrics are appealing because they finally give people a way to defend quantitatively what before they could only guess at: that one player is better than another, or at least more efficient. They offer a way to settle arguments.

Beyond increased page views, that’s really what these bracket gimmicks are about: a desire to give some order to the world, to quantify things that are not generally thought of as quantifiable. They are created to help settle arguments. There’s no “right” answer for which soup is best – or is there? Honestly, I’d be surprised if there weren’t some underemployed statistician out there devising an algorithm that helps to define the relative merits of minestrone versus French onion.

The same logic is being applied throughout our increasingly data-driven society. It’s the reason I’ve been digging through Excel spreadsheets and Google Analytics reports in my day job, on the hunt for the best way to show social media ROI. It’s also the reason that any company that claims it can turn the unstructured mass of “big data” into useful information quickly becomes a darling of the technology industry. We want to be able to measure the world, and to have things make sense. It’s 2012, and we shouldn’t have to guess.

It’s not surprising that we should want to apply these methods to music, too. Back in 2006, I wrote the following in a column about the similarities between sports and music: “If someone doesn’t like a song you love, it’s pretty darn impossible to convince that person otherwise.” We’ve reached a point where you don’t have to even try to find such a song – if we’re meant to like it, the song will find us through one of the many recommendation engines now at our disposal, from Pandora and (which were just starting to become forces when I wrote that) to the Somerville, Massachusetts-based The Echo Nest, which powers music applications like iHeartRadio and the VEVO video platform.

I recently heard Echo Nest’s founder and CTO, Brian Whitman, speak during a locally organized TED event. Though he allowed that computers were not perfect listeners (they lack souls), he argued that applying technology to music is useful for increasing discoverability, creating opportunities for obscure acts that would previously never be found through traditional channels – the Scott Hattebergs of the music world. As one piece of evidence, he pointed to MTV’s Music Meter, which tracks artists based on social media buzz; in contrast to the relentless repetition of Total Request Live a decade ago, these charts are filled with many lesser-known acts who found willing listeners through the wonders of technology.

Some of those Cinderellas will find themselves seeded in the third edition of MTV’s Musical March Madness, a – you guessed it – bracket-style tournament in which fans vote on head-to-head artist matchups. As in the real tournament, only one artist will be crowned champion, which will mean…well, I’m not sure, as the idea of one “best” artist doesn’t really mean anything. But I am pretty sure that, just like in the real tournament, we’ll eventually realize we shouldn’t have been surprised at all by the results. Computers probably could’ve predicted the outcome before things even began.

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