In Defense Of Listicles

Dec. 29, 2013
Devin is a recent graduate of The Ohio State University.

Ever feel like you suffer from listicle-induced Attention Deficit Disorder? Does it seem that whenever you come across a listicle (list + article) a compulsory sensation overtakes you and you cannot help but click and read on? “Ten Fascinating Facts about Ferrets.” “15 Tips and Tricks to Outsmart Everyone at the Theme Park.” “Ten Cats with Amazing Careers.” “27 Signs You Were Raised by Asian Immigrant Parents.” Why are you doing this to yourself?

Well, you aren’t alone. In fact, there is science to back why we’re all feverishly clicking. The New Yorker recently published a thought-provoking essay on why our brains are attracted to lists. Lists offer appeal to our brains simply because they take care of the “mental heavy lifting” for us. Listicles, while also rife with “clickbait,” clearly state in their titles that which they attempt to prove. The title “Ten Fascinating Facts about Ferrets” removes any sort of mystery that might be involved. Your brain is able to process and conceptualize the gist of the article before you actually begin to read. When you’re past that initial cognitive introduction, you’re more likely to continue reading. Or in the case of a listicle, you’re more likely to click the link.

The listicle concept lends itself to digital media more so than any other medium. With ubiquitous clouds of content to select from, choosing something to read or information to digest can be downright cumbersome. Research suggests, when choosing material to take in, we prefer fluency. In other words, we prefer what is unambiguous and definite. It’s probably the same reason shows like Two and a Half Men and Two Broke Girls still exist, predictability and comfort. If we can estimate the intellectual commitment or time commitment of our undertaking with great precision, we’re more likely to partake. You know that a listicle probably isn’t the time or intellectual commitment of a “Longread” or a piece by The Economist, both of which can have greatly varying commitments. In reality, you’re lucky to spend five minutes on most internet lists, and you know that when you initially click.

Once you click on a listicle and begin to read, you’re more often than not underwhelmed by its intellectual capacity. But this is part of the reason we digest them with great fervor. When an article is written in list form, we are able to process the tenets of said article immediately because they are listed numerically. In a typical essay, you cannot scroll down the page and immediately understand all the tenets of an argument or each individual piece of information the article offers. But when in list form, a simple scroll through the numbers reveals what the author really wants you to know, though not in-depth. It is an inch deep and mile wide approach. Below each number is a deeper explanation, but when faced between the choice of reading the explanation and moving onto the next number on the list, you can guess which choice our brain wants to make. The list, perhaps more than ever before, makes surface information incredibly easy to digest. If you’d like to read in-depth, the list also makes room for that. In effect, more of the commitment is left up to the reader than in any other sort of medium.

So how did listicles become so popular? They have seen a rise specifically in the past few years as newsfeeds and timelines, in a social media sense, become the everyday vernacular. As we’ve noted above, lists stick out to our brain as we sift through most of the nonsense we come across on social media. Rather than noticing what an acquaintance who strangely added you on Facebook thinks of a sporting event, the list with 33 reasons why Pitbulls are the greatest ever catches your eye. Even if you haven’t the time to read all 33 mystifying reasons, you’ll have an easy time scrolling through the first half and exiting without much intellectual fortitude. Yes, in a world where take in more and more information through our cumbrous digital lifestyles, lists thrive.

So lists are a bad thing, aren’t they? That’s what we’re told. They ruin journalism and turn our brains into dry paste that won’t stick to anything. We cannot even complete a paragraph! It’s a tired song and dance worth examining. A sane person will not argue that listicles are by and large scholarly or cerebral. But even a publication as highbrow as the New Yorker devotes space to lists. Why compromise a phrenic image? The conception that listicles destroy any and all erudite thought is not always true. Are most lists lacking any real mental exercise? Certainly. But plenty of listicles exist that encourage critical thinking and don’t stray away from deeper subjects. They aren’t all about how cute narwhals are or how perfect Jennifer Lawrence is, some contain depth. Some contain links to important research that, if passionate about, the reader is free to examine. Some contain links to elaborations on philosophy that may change the way you see the world.

But to a large extent the critics are right. Most listicles are not thought-provoking. But is that really what we expect from them? Do we read a listicle to gain a deeper understanding of the world around us? Do we call upon them in order to live the “contemplative life” that Aristotle dreamed? Listicles are predominantly used for entertainment, much like sitcoms, most films, and sadly most books. Seinfeld was arguably one of the greatest shows in television history yet it was admittedly about nothing. We line up in droves to see action-adventure movies that all feature the exact same mindless plotlines. As invested as you are in your John Green book it probably won’t change the way you think about anything. What’s the point? People are drawn to all of these for different reasons, but none serve a purpose other than entertainment. Take it for what it is. Very little news in the world uses a listicle as a vehicle, and if something is vitally important then chances are it is in a more traditional medium.

I feel I must point out that I’m not endorsing lists as a noble medium. However, I believe listicles do have their place in the digital world and not necessarily at the expense of our minds. The common misconception is that the listicle is supplanting the essay, and I don’t think that’s true at all. The listicle has developed as a new form of writing meant to be simply digested as we navigate from place to place. Something we can scan while in line at the coffee shop or riding the elevator. Journalism and writing in general are not threatetened by the listicle. In fact, the listicle could prove to be an effective vehicle between a reader and a deeper essay. Now that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. TC mark

image – Shutterstock

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