Mathew Inkson

Fix the Triple J Hottest 100 Voting System

  |   music

The cover for Triple J’s upcoming compilation

The twentieth anniversary of the Hottest 100 inspired a “best of the last twenty years” version, the winners of which were announced last weekend. As always, there was much angst as to what appeared, what didn’t, and where they ranked. As with the “hottest of all time” count from 2009 the the biggest criticism of this latest poll seems to be the lack of women.

I’ve read a number of articles giving reasons for why this might be, and each of those may be correct. I’ve also read some things about how and why popularity isn’t a good metric for quality, and they’re probably also correct. What I’d like to question is whether the Hottest 100 is even a good measure of popularity, full-stop. Although I accept that the results are skewed towards the particular section of the community that votes in the poll, I don’t even think they accurately represent the opinions of that group.

I believe that the wrong voting system creates this problem, and the sheer number of tracks from which listeners can choose exacerbates it. When the Hottest 100 began, there was no way around this - the current method would have been the easiest way to process phone votes. Today, voting is done via the Web, so it’d be pretty easy to switch to a more appropriate system.

The problem with the current system

I’ll be using the recent vote as my example, but it’s a similar case for the annual events. Listeners were asked to pick a maximum of twenty tracks out of the tens of thousands of songs that might appeal to their demographic as a whole. They were not given the opportunity to rank those songs - each track listed in each ballot would put a single vote next to that song. A total is calculated, and the winners announced. Unfortunately I don’t have access to the ballots themselves and I can’t prove that the voting system skews the results, but I suggest that it’s a possibility.

Album cover for Oasis\' ‘Wonderwall’

The poll was topped by Oasis’ Wonderwall. Now, it may very well be that a plurality of listeners thinks that it’s the best song of the last twenty years. But it’s also possible that a large number of listeners voted for a bunch of other songs as their favourites, and put Wonderwall somewhere else in their lists for nostalgic reasons, perhaps as a shout-out to a fondly-remembered time in their lives. Tweep @NatalieGaronzi made this point somewhat more pithily.

There are a few Hottest 100 number ones that I (perhaps cynically) presume had been given votes for novelty reasons, despite their voters not necessarily considering the song the top track for the year. The flat voting system means that if enough people do this, the song can win. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Like the Condorcet voting method, it will favour candidates generally acceptable to the majority over candidates passionately supported by a minority. Depending on your definition of “hottest song”, this may be fine. Condorcet, however, at least allows the voters to rank their choices.

The problem with the number of tracks available

Album cover for Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’

I like Radiohead, they have a mountain of quality songs, and I love a few of them equally. Paranoid Android, Karma Police, How To Disappear Completely, Everything In Its Right Place. So, I guess I could vote for all of them. But then, I love lots of different types of music and I don’t think I like Radiohead enough to give them four votes out of twenty. So, I decided to choose between them. Out of this lot my favourite is probably How To Disappear Completely, and I voted for it knowing it was unlikely to feature in the final count, so should I have voted for Paranoid Android or Karma Police to boost their votes?

Album cover for PJ Harvey’s ‘Rid Of Me’

Picking on Oasis again - they had the one song feature, and it topped the count. Radiohead had two songs (Paranoid and Karma) feature at 13 and 35. Numerous other bands had two or three songs appear. Is it possible that prolific, long-lived, well-loved, consistently-good bands suffer in such counts? I love PJ Harvey and voted for a few of her tracks. But it was hard to choose only a few. Are there other PJ fans who were in the same boat and chose differently to me? Maybe not, maybe I’m inventing problems here. But I think it’s a possibility worth considering. Oasis has many popular songs, but none stands out as obviously as Wonderwall.

A proposal

To solve these problems I would like to see the Hottest 100 allow voters to rank their songs, and use an STV-based proportional system such as Hare-Clark to tally the results. Let the users select as few or as many tracks as they like (perhaps limited to the number of vacancies to prevent people going overboard and crashing the system), and give them the ability to drag and drop them into the order they choose. The formulas for calculating quotas, surpluses, and exclusions are pretty straightforward, let computers do the work.

This would also go some way to alleviate the ’number of eligible songs’ problem. Since I can vote for as many songs as I like, I’d vote for all four Radiohead songs somewhere in my list without too much concern for wasting my vote. I’d vote for all of the PJ Harvey songs I like and still have plenty of room for my other favourites.

Alternatively, some form of run-off voting system could be employed to whittle down the list first (perhaps to 500 or so) and then in the main vote the listeners would be restricted to those tracks alone. But this would create its own problems, and I would much prefer to kill two birds with the solution above.

Perhaps nothing I’ve suggested here would make a difference. Perhaps Triple J listeners genuinely aren’t fans of women in music, and maybe they genuinely love novelty songs. But to fix the voting system would at least remove these doubts and give us a clearer idea. Tracing preference flows would also provide some interesting metadata. Are fans of Mumford & Sons also into Of Monsters and Men? I bet they are.

Finally, it may be that I’m trying to wedge the wrong voting system into the wrong paradigm. If any psephologists read this, feel free to poke holes in it, but I’d love to hear some alternatives.