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I’ve recently said that countdown lists are the baking soda volcano of internet content, and now I’ve said it twice. That’s to pity laughs for the price of one- take that economy! Speaking of poor writing, insert transition here. Today on The Anime Harvest, the right way to make a countdown list.

Now I haven’t done many countdowns or top ten lists here before. I’ve down one top thirteen list of Pokémon mega evolutions I still want to see, and I’m writing this alongside a countdown of Pokémon Snap courses. There’s a reason I don’t do a lot of these, but also a reason for doing some. Let’s start with the bad.

Countdown lists are supposedly subjective, trivial, and really meaningless long term. They are a bit fun to write and read, if they’re just your own top ten favourite Power Rangers episodes (for example), it’s not really helping anyone. Not that that’s necessarily bad; of course there’s nothing wrong with a little shallow fun one in a while. My real problem is these highly subjective lists is the little bit of existential anguish that accompanies them.

Anguish, as I’m using it here, refers to fearing one’s own capacity to change. In existentialism, the most common example for anguish, or angst, is the idea of standing on the edge of a cliff, and realizing that at any moment not only could you fall off, but you could throw yourself off. Even if you don’t want to do it, you can feel this possibility, that you have the freedom to do it, and it’s a petrifying fear.

The cliff is an immediate and extreme example, but I think we often experience this when dealing with more long term things. For example when buying something expensive related to one of your hobbies, don’t you ever get the feeling, “What if I grow out of this?” the feeling that you might look back on the purchase and feel stupid, like you wasted your money? You get a bit of that doing countdown lists too, because you are conscious of your freedom, and you know your tastes and opinions could change. At least, that’s my experience. And that’s why I take a different approach to countdowns.

This is not an objective approach; there is no objective way to rank your opinions of things. But it’s also not purely subjective in the sense that, you like x most so it’s number one, and y second most so it’s number two, etc.

The way I look at these lists, the exact order is not really important, and the items on the list may not perfectly represent my tastes. If I’m doing a top ten favorite anime for example, five through one will all almost certainly be on my actually top ten at that moment, eight through six would probably be on it as well, but nine and ten may not actually be in my top ten favourite anime.

As for the order, I don’t put a lot of agonizing thought into it. Cowboy Bebop would be closer to number one than Outlaw Star, because in my opinion Bebop is the clearly superior show. But between Wolf’s Rain and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, I’d probably just put them in whichever order reads better.

So if my actual opinion isn’t a sole arbiter of these lists, how do I make them? My opinion, on its own, is crap. Even if I did let it make the lists, those lists would just be titles preceded by numbers. The substance of a countdown list isn’t titles and numbers, it’s the explanation. The main thing I have in mind when making a countdown list is what interesting things I can say about each item.

That’s not to say my actual (or simple) opinion has no bearing; it’s influence on the list varies depending on the subject matter. My Top 13 Mega Evolutions I Still Want to See isn’t about which pokémon I actually like –there’s over 700 of the things now, and I put Garurumon on that list- it’s about how I think the mechanic of mega evolution should be handled. But at the same time, number one on that list, Scyther, is actually the pokémon I most want to see get a mega evolution. Similarly, my Pokémon Snap course countdown is mostly about level design, but it’s not too different from my actual opinion when it comes to best Pokémon Snap courses.

The main job of someone writing this lists is to winnow each item under consideration, and explain it. Reaching a proper balance is easier when you have thought through your opinions.

The point of a top ten or countdown isn’t to spew the trivial results of your stupid tastes. It’s to make a point about what makes a thing good, bad, or interesting. Let your own partialities have influence, have some fun with it. But explain each item in a way that adds something substantive to the list.

I started this by saying countdown lists are like vinegar and baking soda volcanos, and I stand by that. They’re not that complicate or tough to make, and a lot of people use them for a cheap passing grade. But there is some actual chemistry behind vinegar and baking soda that smart students can look into. Most of them are generously award a C-, but if you actually put some thought in, one can be worth an A.

Don’t Lose Your Way