We live in the age of the list.
We’re processing thoughtful reporting and intelligent discussion into bite-sized chunks of information with the intellectual value of a Chicken McNuggets meal.
BuzzFeed and its imitators have made lists the most successful content form on the Internet, to the point that list articles are rapidly replacing Web journalism as the No. 1 source of knowledge distribution.
In a last-ditch effort to halt lists’ domination, I’m commandeering the format to explain why lists are a blight on humanity.
With 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 hits including lists about lists: “Best and worst lists,” “The 7 types of Internet lists,” etc. I refer to this phenomenon as list-ception. If we go any deeper, we’ll end up in limbo.
2. They control our minds. Lists subtly manipulate us so they can 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 we see a list, “we are drawn to it intuitively, we process it efficiently, and we retain it with little effort.”
Lists are basically junk food for the mind. We’re drawn to them, gobble them up quickly, and, when they’re gone, have trouble shedding the tripe they leave in our system.
3. They rob us of free will. Lists remove what Claude Messner and Michaela Wänke describe as the paradox of choice. This is the notion that the more options we have, the worse we feel. A list offers a clear objective and end point, sparing us the bother of that pesky little thing people used to have—freedom of choice.
4. They’ve spawned demo-listicles. If the list article is the tyrant of the Internet, the demo-listicle (demographically-targeted list article) is the maniacal acolyte recruiting at street level.
Let’s assume the Berkeley story’s authors are Berkeley alumni themselves. 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 demo-listicle is that this kind of success is 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.”
That leads us to …
5. They tell you what to feel.
Generation Y’s nostalgia is BuzzFeed’s bread and butter, to the point that not a day goes by where BuzzFeed doesn’t post a list article lamenting the loss of a sitcom, boy band or product from the 1990s. Does this look familiar?
X [insert ’90s things] that will make you feel [insert emotion]
I lived through the ’90s. I’m probably the middle-class 20-something that BuzzFeed identifies as a core user. However, lists about Pokémon, “Friends” and Nesquik don’t make me nostalgic.
Reading about toys and TV shows that barely entered my radar 15 to 20 years ago and no longer exist doesn’t make me feel old; it makes me angry that BuzzFeed promotes this garbage.
6. They exploit SEO loopholes. For a long time, we assumed Google’s algorithms were biased against thin content (e.g., pages containing fewer than 500 words). However, social media’s success has proven this false, leaving the door 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 because the user must click several times to read the entire article. This makes a poorly researched piece of clickbait look far more interesting to Google than a legitimate article.
7. They’re killing Web journalism. In a digital landscape in which users will click off a page after one second of inactivity, Web-based journalists have to fight for mere moments of their readers’ attention. This has forced reputable news sources to form a Faustian pact with lists. For instance, the Guardian Online wrote an article about producing news content in a list-format to accommodate for “news snacking.” Alex Wynick (former writer for the Mirror Online) also reported on her 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.
It’s sad, but true. Lists are cheap content, but they’re an easy way to practically guarantee engagement. I’ve unfortunately used lists for the sake of driving a few more clicks in the often-challenging gaming sector. (This little travesty even comes with a clickbait 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 you can see elsewhere, as in the shortening of fiction and Wikipedia’s increasing popularity as a resource.
We live in a world of perpetual digital engagement, where reams of content are just a finger swipe away. This strains our attention spans and patience, meaning we demand more at the expense of less effort. Most worrying is that we now have a generation of people who have never known anything different.
How long before the list replaces well-researched, thought-provoking journalism, presenting the complicated realities of 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. A version of this article originally appeared on Muck Rack, a service that enables you to find journalists to pitch, build media lists, get press alerts and create coverage reports with social media data.