My hometown is Des Moines, an underrated city with cheap rent, cheaper booze and a trippy sculpture garden. I like Des Moines, though it’s a place that’s easy to dismiss.
Yet it seems nearly every time I log into Facebook, a friend has shared a list that ranks Des Moines well in categories like best cities for young professionals, community pride, startups, up-and-coming foodie scenes, and “the furriendiest,” i.e. pet adoption. So if Des Moines is so great, why then does a good portion of the county see my city as boring?
Mike Draper is founder of Des Moines-based Raygun. His apparel company screen-prints t-shirts that satirize Midwestern culture.
“This is one of my favorite Des Moines slogans we’ve up with of all time. ‘Des Moines: Let Us Exceed Your Already Low Expectations.”
As the shirt suggests Des Moines, and really Iowa as a whole, knows that the rest of the country thinks we’re sort of lame. I think Iowans have good sense of humor about it, but sometimes the jokes kind of sting.
So maybe that’s why when a city in Iowa shows up on a list like “Best Tech Cities to Start A Career” local media, including Iowa Public Radio, pay attention. Raygun takes notice too and even creates t-shirts based on lists, such as one that reads “Des Moines: The Wealthiest City in the Universe.”
“I think ‘The Today Show’ named Des Moines ‘The Wealthiest City in America' once. I think it was like how much we make verses the cost of living,” says Draper. “But if you’ve ever been to Fairfield County, Connecticut you’re like....errrr.”
“People have relationships with cities...Many of the memories you have, the experiences you have are in a particular location,” says Sekar Raju, who studies brand relationships at Iowa State University’s College of Business. “Seeing that their city is a good place to live in sort of revalidates that notion that, ‘Yes, I’m making a good choice by continuing to stay here’…It also gives bragging rights.”
“At some point you can put any city or any college on a list depending on how finely you divide that list up. And the more cities that are not typically found on the top lists, they can widen their base,” says Raju.
“I don’t really know much about Des Moines,” says Nick Johnson, founder of infotainment website RoadSnacks. “But I would say Des Moines probably isn’t used to getting mentioned in the same lists with other larger cities or other well-known cities, so when it does pop up I can see why it would create some sort of stir.”
Johnson has made a career out of creating these sorts of lists. He used to write for real estate website Movoto. Then in late March he and collaborator Chris Kolmar started RoadSnacks, which uses Census, FBI and other open source data to rank cities and states. But RoadSnacks does things a little different.
“One time we decided to flip the best lists upside down, and publish ‘Where are the Worst Places in Florida?’ Instead of ‘Where are the Best?’ And it was like an immediate hit. We had about 350,000 page views. We were all over the news. Everybody was talking about us,” he says.
Data that Johnson shared with me shows RoadSnacks getting 6.3 million page views from July 5 through August 6 this year. Part of the success he says can be attributed to people taking click bait seriously.
“We’ve had two mayors send us letters, very upset. One of them threatened to call the attorney general and have our website shutdown. We had another councilman say basically we were the reason he lost out on a development deal.”
ISU’s Sekar Raju says content like the kind Johnson writes, might be less for people who live in the cities that rank as the worst. But rather is geared towards everyone else.
“It’s the in-group, out-group type of thing,” he says. “You want to make sure your city is not (on the list.)”
When it comes to positive lists, Mary Bontrager of the Greater Des Moines Partnership says rankings and articles helps put Des Moines “on the radar screen” of people who may not have otherwise considered central Iowa as a place to live or locate a business.
“For those that had perhaps either a negative or no impression of what central Iowa is like, do the stories cause them to say, ‘That’s where I want to live?” Perhaps not,” she says. “But… I hear from people all the time that are calling up and saying, ‘I’m interesting in moving to Des Moines. I’ve been seeing a lot of rankings, so I’ve been doing my research. Tell me what the job market is like. Tell me what the housing market is like.’”
Another reason these lists are so popular is because the human brain might be designed to rank things. Mathew Isaac is a consumer psychologist at Albers School of Business and Economics at Seattle University, where he studies lists. Isaac says lists help people categorize a lot of information quickly. But he adds our brains may be less discerning when analyzing the validity of that information.
“We sometimes just process these lists very quickly,” he says. “We try to just look for our city on the list. And then we use that to either give it a thumb’s up or a thumb’s down to something, right? And I think we need to be a lot more careful about understanding the source and the methodology.”
By the way, did you know that the Iowa State Fair is the fourth best state fair in the country? That’s according to the website, Vacations Made Easy.
It's hard to know how much research went into the list, or even much about the person who created it. The site identifies her only as "Kelsey B."
UPDATE: Kelsey Berry (Kelsey B.) of Vacations Made Easy emailed information about her state fair list. Berry says she based the ranking on factors like attendance and activities that reflect the a state's culture.
"As you probably know, these types of articles are somewhat subjective, but we tried our best to pick the top ones based on popular opinion."