Not long ago, I received an email that unexpectedly validated my decision to live in the DC area: Lawn Love, a San Diego–based platform for landscaping professionals and homeowners, had ranked Washington at number seven on its list of “Best Cities for Burger Lovers.” Though the methodology seemed kind of weird, it made me grateful I’m not raising kids in Paterson, New Jersey, which came in last. But wait—why was a lawn-care site ranking hamburger-friendliness in the first place?
Journalists receive many emails hawking these kinds of “studies,” and they can be hard to resist. My inbox suggests that our region ranks high in all sorts of bizarre ways. A web-hosting company claims Maryland is the eighth-best state for freelance writing. A language-tutoring site declares DC the 11th-best city for swearing. (That one was too effing hard to resist: I actually wrote a story about it.) Something called WalletHub emailed me no fewer than 96 times in the first six months of the year to pitch DC’s ranking on various “best” lists: dental health (we’re number three), working from home (six), even being a basketball fan (seven). Have they actually seen a Wizards game recently?
I would love to tell you more about how these studies get made and the way they fit into the business plans of WalletHub or Journo Research (a UK-based concern with a similar talent for bombarding reporters with pitches), but when asked for an interview, a WalletHub spokesperson said the company had “no interest in getting into the nitty gritty of our processes as we have dealt with replication attempts in the past.” Journo Research, meanwhile, simply didn’t respond.
So to find out what’s actually going on here, I called up David Karpf, a professor at George Washington University who researches the ways digital media affects communication. Studies like these are, he told me, “somewhere between dumb and bad.” Yes, it’s “just random garbage to get you to click,” Karpf said, but in his view, these rankings also represent something more: “the broader way that clickbait swallowed the entire [publishing] industry.” In a sense, the surveys are just the latest version of those online slideshows that used to dominate news sites not long ago—a lame tactic that generally amplified traffic without adding anything much of value.
Karpf mentioned a shoddily researched article he encountered recently that purported to list the most popular meals at a local food hall. It was “garbage,” he said, but it worked: The promised ranking got him, a fan of the food hall, to click.
All of which is to say most of this stuff seems pretty silly—just a means for coverage-hungry companies to drum up attention. The methodology can be unconvincing, with, for example, searches for keywords on Twitter sometimes standing in for more rigorous research. The criteria being used can seem random, so that a small tweak in the way they’re calculated would probably cause different results. And DC is often compared not with other cities but with states, tending to skew things significantly.
Jessica Huseman, who covers election issues for the news outlet Votebeat and teaches journalism at American University, got interested in this form of viral marketing in 2019, when she noticed an article claiming that half of Americans use a swimming pool instead of taking a shower. That seemed . . . not plausible. After digging into it, she realized it was funded by a trade group for chlorine manufacturers, and when she took a closer look, the details of the research were unconvincing. “I think a lot of journalists just accept as fact things that are presented to them with a scientific veneer,” Huseman says. “These surveys sound real, right?”
And the fire hose of flimsy content is only going to get worse, Karpf predicts, especially as new AI tools make it possible to crank out any number of surveys and rankings with basically no effort whatsoever. Pondering that prospect makes me want to have a drink. Good thing Lawn Love is on the case: Earlier this year, the company examined factors such as number of diners and access to 24-hour convenience stores in order to determine the best cities in which to cure a hangover. Alexandria, where I live, came in at number ten.
This article appears in the August 2023 issue of Washingtonian.