When the list-article (hence listicle) first really took hold online as a method of transmitting information, I was in love. You can talk about anything in a list! It’s so easy to digest! They’re quick to read! They can be paired with gifs! I thought. But more recently, as I’ve grown accustomed to the form, I’ve also grown really bored and frustrated with it.
Yesterday, I came across this list on Facebook: “30 Things You Need To Know About The North Shore, MA Before You Move There.” Great, I thought, this is where I’m from! I wonder what they have to say. Very quickly, it disappointed me. I read things like, “2. North Shore Natives Are Born Into Red Sox Fandom,” and worse, “22. Toothbrush, Candy, Makeup, Beach Chair? Get Them At CVS.” The whole thing was ridiculous – of course many people from metro Boston follow the Red Sox, and CVS is a national chain utterly unoriginal to the North Shore. Every item in the list seemed trivial and reductionist in reference to my beloved hometown.
I realize that there are lots of lists like this all over the internet, and I don’t mean to say that this one was the worst article ever written. I just focused on this one for one main reason: although I got to this article via the Facebook post of a friend from high school, this post is on a real estate site. This list, and thousands (millions?) of others like it on the internet exist purely as click bait in pursuit of ad revenue. When read, you can just hear the author saying “Number 12…. I said I would have 12 items on my list, so I’ve gotta fill this one in….”
Lists seem to have caught on because they’re modular and they have a form that is easily recognizable but not too rigid. But in most cases they seem like sloppy writing, poor structure, and fluff disguised behind a recognizable structure. “27 reasons why NYC is the best” is almost certainly a worse, less nuanced sort of piece than an in-depth ode to the city written by a lifelong native. Because they are not confined to a particular number of items or number of words per item, they often drag on meaninglessly just to fill the amount of space the author wants. Without a coherent narrative, there is nothing to keep the reader engaged until the end, and list-filled websites often don’t care. Many websites that host lots of lists, like Buzzfeed, have links to other articles in a list down the entire length of the page, implicitly acknowledging that they don’t expect or care that you read the whole piece.
As someone who used to edit for The Tech and who loves to read both news and fiction, I find this whole idea of the listicle as a spreadable news form interesting and sad. There are, of course, times for lists: when you’re talking about things that should genuinely be ranked ordinally or when you are talking about several discrete entities (even here, it’s often less desirable than writing a narrative to connect them). There are well-done lists that are interesting, informative, long, short, funny, and serious. This is not the same thing as writing a list of the top three reasons that Reese’s are the best candies to exist (which they are). That might be, as your eighth grade English teacher taught you, better expressed as a five paragraph essay. In fact, most listicles would either be better written as a real, cohesive essay or, if it is too difficult to organize your ideas that way or to fill a whole article or to weave a storyline, not written at all. Not everything that’s spreadable is valuable, and I think that that’s something worth learning sooner rather than later, something that is surprisingly uncommon as the talk of “viral” or “trending” online content grows.
To those who say that lists are attractive because they provide soundbites about a topic: most lists are significantly more words than a true blurb about a topic, and some are longer than a real article on the subject. Twitter is an example of brevity done rather well, while listicles as a form are generally.
I suppose my real hatred of the listicle stems from the fact that they’re generally unoriginal; the listicles of “things that all white girls like,” “things that only 90s kids will understand,” and “reasons to visit ____ this fall” are pedestrian, yet somehow always suck people in. Although we always talk about the benefits of the internet, I think it’s time to really examine what the ability of everyone to shout into the abyss of cyberspace really means. Is it really a benefit when your unique and inspiring life story, the goings on in the Middle East, or the story of an oppressed minority is just not as spreadable as “23 Misleading Things All Horseback Riders Say”?