Listing Under the Influence

I dig through 10 years of TIME 100 picks to see how often the editors got it right — or wrong

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Illustration by Tomasz Walenta for TIME; Corbis (8); Getty Images (4)

One of the great things about being at TIME is that we can just make things true. We pick a Person of the Year, and people talk about that person. We print news on paper, and people keep reading news on paper. I should probably check with our business team to make sure that’s true.

But because I care so much about this magazine, I have taken it upon myself to hold it to the highest standard, even though it has never done that to me. So this year, for the 10th edition of the TIME 100, I am looking back to see how influential the people on all those lists turned out to be. I can do this with impartiality since I have never been invited to a TIME 100 meeting, probably because I would slow down the process by giggling at foreign names. Even without me there, I have to figure they lost 40 minutes when they decided to put Roya Mahboob on this year’s list.

To figure out how to review our lists, I contacted Bill James, who invented modern baseball statistics and was named to the TIME 100 in 2006. He had no idea. “I think there is something inherently arbitrary in the practice,” he said about the TIME  100. “A friend of mine with the Red Sox responded to my selection by saying, ‘Bill, you’re not even one of the 100 most influential people with the Red Sox.’” In other words, we have had way too few Red Sox on our lists.

I was going to have to approach my analysis the same way TIME editors make their TIME 100 selections: by randomly guessing. As I looked through all the past selections (King Wangchuck! Sepp Blatter! Lang Lang! Han Han! Pippa Middleton!), I noticed that about a quarter of them were obvious: the President of the United States, the President of China, the Chancellor of Germany, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg. Many of the rest turned out to be prescient. Elizabeth Warren (’09) went on to become a Senator; the predictions of Nate Silver (’09) were perfect in the last presidential election. This year we correctly picked Jimmy Fallon, who, after coming to an agreement with NBC to host The Tonight Show in 2014, will soon make a huge imprint on television history through his own talk show on TBS.

Others, however, didn’t work out as well. The most influential of 2004 included Mel Gibson and Lance Armstrong! The next year: Eliot Spitzer! In 2009 we chose Tiger Woods; the next year we went with Dominique Strauss-Kahn; a year later, David Petraeus. Last year? Oscar Pistorius! Advice to the ladies: Don’t date anyone on the TIME 100.

And some just weren’t as influential as it seemed. It turns out the BlackBerry Guys (’05) weren’t on the edge of mobile technology, the Flickr Founders (’06) were no Instagram dudes, Carly Fiorina (’04) wasn’t long for Hewlett-Packard, Stanley McChrystal (’10) wasn’t long for the Army, and Tim Tebow (’12) threw eight passes in 2012. Pope Benedict (’06, ’07) was so ineffective that he quit a job no one knew you could quit. I am not sure whom TIME believed Mitt Romney was influencing in 2012, though I know it wasn’t Clint Eastwood.

After poring over lists that included Ugly Betty actress America Ferrera, the inventor of the virtual world Second Life and Dane Cook, I wondered how TIME could go on doing this issue knowing it had gotten it so wrong. So I called Scott Lamb, the editorial director of Buzzfeed, who has a team of 30 people creating about 50 lists a day for its website. Lamb said list making is fraught since you might mistake a data blip for a growing trend or try to be interesting by leaving off the obvious in favor of the unexpected. Though he’s never looked back at his lists, he said, “I’d be curious if our animals editor, Jack Shepherd, was right about The 30 Most Important Cats of 2012. He takes it very seriously. But maybe he forgot to put Grumpy Cat on the list when Grumpy Cat was coming up.” I checked, and he did not forget. The TIME 100, however, did.

But whether Lamb’s team chose the 31 flavors that have held up the best for the “31 Flavors of Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream, in Case You Don’t Feel Like Looking It Up Yourself, Fatty” might not matter. “Looking at these lists as historical documents is probably not worth it,” Lamb said. “They should be telling a story about the present.” TIME’s present includes, according to our list, Justin Timberlake, while Buzzfeed’s present involves Colonel Meow.

The TIME 100 tells a pretty good story of how the world seems at the time. TIME, it turns out, just changes a lot. Which is why, my analysis shows, we’re going to start putting out a daily TIME 100. I know a guy with a staff of 30 people who can do the job. They are going to be pretty excited about this paper thing.