We are living in the age of the list.
Thoughtful reporting and intelligent discussion are being processed into bite-sized chunks of information with all the intellectual value of a Chicken McNugget meal.
BuzzFeed and its imitators have made the list into the most successful content form on the internet, to the point that ‘listicles’ are rapidly replacing web journalism as the number one source of knowledge distribution.
In a last ditch effort to halt the unstoppable domination of lists, I’m usurping the format itself to explain why lists are a blight on humanity. So, with absolutely no irony intended, here are eight reasons I hate lists….
1. They’re everywhere. A quick Google search for ‘internet lists’ turns up around 674 million results, with the top ranking results being lists of lists, Best and Worst Lists,’ ‘The 7 Types of Internet Lists,’ etc. This is a phenomenon that I refer to as list-ception. If we go any deeper, we’ll end up stuck in limbo.
2. They control our minds. Lists subtly manipulate the attention-deficient brains of modern Internet users to seize our attention and stick in our heads. The New Yorker’s Maria Konnikova argues that lists “tap into our preferred way of receiving and organizing information at a subconscious level.” As a result, when presented with a list “we are drawn to it intuitively, we process it efficiently, and we retain it with little effort.” So lists are basically the junk food of the mind: we’re drawn to them, we gobble them up quickly and even when they’re gone, we can’t soon shed the crap they leave in our system.
3. They rob us of free will. Another appealing psychological effect of the list is that they remove what Claude Messner and Michaela Wänke describe as the ‘paradox of choice.’ In brief, this is the contradictory notion that, the more options we have, the worse we feel. A nice, sequential list offers a clear objective and end point, sparing us the bother of that pesky little thing that people used to have...y’know, freedom?
4. The ‘demolistical.’ If the listicle is the despotic tyrant of the internet, the demolisticle is the maniacal acolyte recruiting at street level. This grubby little phenomenon was first identified by Slate’s Will Oremus, who cites the BuzzFeed list ‘40 Signs You Went to Berkeley’ as a prime example of the demographically-targeted listicle in action:
“Let’s assume the Berkeley story’s authors are Berkeley alumni themselves,” he explains. “According to LinkedIn, they are. They post the headline on their Facebook feeds, where a bunch of their former classmates see it, like it, and, in a fit of nostalgia, pass it on to their own networks, which are full of other Berkeley grads. Before long, a significant portion of the nation’s half-million living Cal alumni have clicked on the piece.”
For websites like BuzzFeed, the beauty of the demolistical is that this kind of success is very easy to replicate. Oremus writes, “Posts like [the Berkeley list] require little to no reporting, only a tiny bit of writing, and, evidently, minimal imagination. All they require is a very specific target audience and an author who can relate broadly to some of that audience’s shared experiences.”
Which leads us seamlessly into…
5. ...X [insert 90s things] that will make you feel [insert emotion] The nostalgia of Generation Y is BuzzFeed’s bread and butter, to the point that not a day goes by without a listicle lamenting the loss of a sitcom, boy band or product from the 1990s being promoted to the website’s homepage.
Now, I lived through the 1990s–in fact I’m probably the kind of middle-class 20-something that BuzzFeed would identify as a ‘core user’ - yet I find myself entirely unmoved by lists about Pokémon, Friends and Nesquik.
No, BuzzFeed, reading about stuff that barely entered my radar 15-20 years ago and which no longer exists does not make me feel old, it just makes me angry; angry that you keep promoting this garbage.
6. They exploit SEO loopholes. For a long time, it was assumed that Google’s ranking algorithms were biased against thin content (i.e. pages containing less than 500 words.) However, the success of social media has proved this assumption entirely false (confirmed in 2012), leaving the door wide open for a tidal wave of bare-bones content to flood the internet.
Furthermore, lists like this are spread over multiple pages, artificially boosting page impressions as the user must click several times to read the whole article. This makes a poorly-researched piece of click-bait look far more interesting in Google’s eyes.
7. They’re killing web journalism. In a digital landscape where users will click off a webpage after a single second of inactivity, web-based journalists have to fight for mere moments of attention from their fickle readers. This has forced reputable news sources to form a Faustian pact with the list. For instance, the Guardian Online wrote an extended article about producing news content in list-format to accommodate for ‘news snacking’
Meanwhile, Alex Wynick (former writer for the Mirror Online) reports on her own experiences with lists: “As an online reporter for the Mirror, these 'listicles' immediately became part of my working life. I have written dozens, and very, very rarely do I have to visit more than two or three websites for enough information to write a complete piece. Lists lower readers' expectations of what journalism should be, and it is sad that they are more popular than real features.”
Sad but true, Alex. Lists are cheap content, but they’re an easy way to practically guarantee engagement. I’ve even used lists myself for the sake of driving a few more clicks in the often challenging gaming sector, (this little travesty even comes complete with a click-bait headline ‘7 Freaky Drugs for Vegas.’ Don’t judge me.)
8. They’re a symptom and a cause. Lists form a self-perpetuating cycle with a societal languor that can be seen elsewhere in the general shortening of fiction and the increasing popularity of Wikipedia as a research resource.
Modern readers live in an ‘always-on’ world of perpetual digital engagement, where reams of content are always just a finger swipe away. This places serious strain on our attention spans and patience, meaning that we demand more at the expense of less effort. Most worryingly, we now have a generation of individuals who have never known anything different.
How long before the list replaces well-researched, though-provoking journalism wholesale, presenting the complicated and difficult realities of modern life, culture and politics in digestible chunks – with a plenitude of funny GIFs thrown in for ‘lulz’?
Sam Miranda is a content strategist for a network of gaming websites. He also writes about business, marketing and general entertainment for a range of online publications. You can follow him on Twitter.
Photo: Checklist via Shutterstock