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Breaking Down Best Of

An oral history of a concept that continues to baffle media historians to this day

MEDIA HISTORIANS believe that the "Best Of" issue originated in ancient Rome, when orators in the Senate would often rend each other's toga in the midst of arguments over whether Castor's Italian restaurant was better than Pollux's Pizza Parlor or vice versa. To resolve such touchy issues, the Senate consulted the Vestal Virgins, and a good time was had by all. Later, Marcus Getrealius decreed the Best Of Poll, which allowed the people to cast lots for their favorite Forum shops. The results were then inscribed upon a marble column and updated yearly.

Unfortunately, with the increased bureaucratic confusion that followed Rome's imperial expansion, the Best Of tradition fell into decline; the decadent Emperor Arugula, for instance, simply anointed the winners and fed the losers to the lions. The idea was revived briefly in Europe in the Middle Ages, although historians question the populist veracity of polls in which "My Master in the Castle" or "My Liege's Suit" wins in every category. Postmodernist scholars point to such categories as "Best Serf Shop" as fruitful areas for further study.

The concept next resurfaces in Boston, in the 1770s, when a group of colonists tried to distinguish themselves from British culture by proclaiming certain local businesses "thee best," whereupon another group of colonists posted broadsheets intimating that they had not been consulted, that the categories were skewed and that they would rather dump tea in the harbor than be forced to swallow the idea that Edenton & Sons Cobbler was better than Gudstockings & Sons Cobbler. In the end, the colonists agreed that any business not owned by the British was certainly the best and that they might as well dump tea in the harbor anyway, since caffeine intake clearly caused short tempers.

Since the number of businesses operating in the newly independent United States of America remained fairly limited, it is not surprising that the Best Of concept failed to find its footing until the early 1900s, when the invention of the automobile allowed for greater regional penetration by ad reps. Able to visit businesses far and wide, ad reps published "testimonials" in their newspapers in which "real people" were quoted as saying that said businesses were "the best." This led to mass confusion, as customers became unable to discern which businesses were, in fact, the best, frequently in desperation resorting to the old technique of patronizing whichever business was closest to their home.

Fortunately, newspaper officials intervened, and in 1905, the first Best Of edition was published in San Francisco, bearing the rather unwieldy title "In Which the People, Having Determined by Fair and Inviolate Vote the Truth, Establish a Ranking of Businesses by Virtue and Aptitude." Later, this was shortened to "The Best Of."

The subsequent history of the Best Of concept is a rocky one, involving various accounts of voter fraud and accusations of crass commercialism, favoritism and Marxism. The last is ironic, since Marx himself wrote, "A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties." Enough said.

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From the September 25-October 1, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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