If the addition of a “most popular” articles feature at the Wall Street Journal online isn’t new altogether, it is the first time I’ve noticed it. I’m a big fan of that sort of thing, and regularly scan similar pages at the Financial Times, Yahoo, the New York Times, and Yahoo Business.
To adapt physicist Richard Feynman, What do you care what other people think? That is, after all, what you are doing when you pay attention to lists of most-read articles.
There are some obvious rationales: First, scanning such lists shows you what other people think is important (beach volleyball and Bush’s “miscalculations” in the case of Yahoo; Krispy Kreme’s profits in the case of the WSJ). In that sense, knowing what other people think is important is a useful exercise in gestalt tracking.
But reading such lists is useful in another way. The WSJ, NY Times, etc., are all big sources. It is easy to miss important and/or interesting articles buried deep inside. Sometimes people will draw them to your attention, like when you are in an office or on a mailing list. But many times you just plain miss stuff. “Most popular” lists are autonomous solutions to this problem. Lists of the most-read articles are a collective meta-filter of what is in the source, and so they are often very helpful at drawing your attention to articles you might not otherwise have noticed.
I think “most popular” list are under-used (outside of the content producers themselves). While newspaper send around press releases of the “important” stories in tomorrow’s paper, I wish they created RSS feeds of the most popular stories. Syndicating the most-syndicated articles in list form might sound circular, but it is actually a very useful way of dealing with the vexing signal-to-noise problem in the information economy.