Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Boston Globe Article: Where should Eminem rank?

Kevin Hartnett of the Boston Globe wrote a nice article about the Who's Bigger methodology for ranking people for the Sunday paper, including a nifty online graphic showing our analysis of painting prices by artist significance.  It gave me a fresh chance to kvetch about the $142.4 million recently paid for the Francis Bacon [3470] triptych, discussed in my previous blog post.

Certain themes are starting to emerge as reviewers get their hands on our book.   In particular, there seems a natural instinct to hunt for people whose rankings offend the reviewer's sense of propriety, with the sense of casting doubt on our methods.  Typically these suspect cases prove to be popular celebrities such as Eminem [823] and Miley Cyrus [2009], both cited in Hartnett's article.

It seems wrong to rate these figures as high as our algorithms do, and indeed my gut instinct is that our rankings of these individuals may be a little too high.  But it should be clear that historically placing contemporary figures is a particularly difficult task.   Reputations are dynamic.  Part of our model is based on the frequency people read Wikipedia pages.   If ten or twenty years from now such interest in these people declines faster than our current model predicts, their rankings will go down.  But today both are among the most famous individuals in the world, and that has to count for something.

Another way to think about this is to look for the rankings of comparable figures.   We rank Mick Jagger at 1055, essentially equivalent to Eminem.  My guess is many readers will not blanch at where our algorithms put the Rolling Stones lead singer. It seems to me that Eminem's cultural significance in his time is grossly analogous to that of Jagger in his.  Miley Cyrus is more of a stretch at her current ranking, but it seems fair to put her somewhere in the child-star league between Shirley Temple [2177] and Annette Funicello [15957].

Further, both are young enough that their full story isn't yet written.  Our analysis of Google Ngrams suggests that people generally reach their peak book-reference frequency around ages 60 to 70.  While this is probably optimistic for most young musicians, it proved to be true for Elvis Presley [69].  Much of what is written about Eminem and Miley Cyrus today could have been said of Elvis in 1960, and yet there are not many figures from the 1950's who will endure with greater historical/cultural significance than the King of Rock and Roll.