On loving lists, or how I learned to stop worrying and embrace the future of the Internet

December is inextricably tied up with lists. One of the main songs we hear during the month contains the phrase “making a list, checking it twice…” We want to recap the year and rank everything possible — movies, TV shows, searches, books, albums, cat GIFs, long-form journalism — so everywhere we turn online, we see a list. Hell, at work, people start talking about the next year — and that likely involves a list of different objectives or ideas. Lists are everywhere. So why do we care?

The New Yorker blog had two good articles about this recently — here and here — that go into detail on the spatial reasoning, information processing, and psychology models behind the “listicle.” There’s even been studies that when article headlines are presented as lists (which I kinda did on this post), people are more likely to read the actual content (doubtful that will happen here). Other research has indicated we like lists because it solves the issue of too much choice — clicking through to a list article guarantees that there’s going to be some kind of definitive end point (No. 1, No. 10, etc.) and you can easily organize the info that way. NPR has discussed this topic, as has VICE, Psychologies Magazine, and The Atlantic. All of them pretty much come back to the same points: making order out of chaos, finite stopping point, easy to process, etc. And then here’s Umberto Eco on why we like lists because we don’t want to die: 

Why do we waste so much time trying to complete things that can’t be realistically completed?

Eco: We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.

The listicle has essentially re-invented digital journalism — at least, that’s the standard narrative — and that’s all much to the chagrin of the old-school, ink-stained wench type journalist. But the UK editor of Buzzfeed, which is probably the most list-centric website on the planet right now, has claimed it’s really not true:

He explains: “I don’t think lists are more prevalent [in articles] now than they used to be. It’s a print thing that’s been around for a long time. There’s this weird idea that Buzzfeed invented the list format and newspapers are now trying to copy Buzzfeed. I don’t think that’s true.”

He has a point in the sense that magazines like Cosmopolitan have been running “36 Ways To Get Your Man Excited” articles since the 1950s. Those are, ostensibly, listicles. Now the Buzzfeed listicles are even starting to resonate in video, which is a more attractive ad space for a lot of people. Plus, the listicle is going global now. It’s truly a cornerstone of a business model. (I remember when I worked for ESPN.com for a couple of years, sometimes in meetings people would say, “Ah, just make a fucking list out of it. People love lists.” Sure enough, lists would always pop big. I wrote this Tiger Woods best ads list once and I think it cleared 100K views, which is insane for anything I wrote back at ESPN.)

If you needed a lot more, here’s 127 reasons why we’re fascinated by lists, and there’s even an entire website dedicated to preserving and maintaining lists. CBS has a take too, and they’re the current bosses of David Letterman, who has done quite a bit for the televised list. There’s also a little north of a million results on Google Scholar for “making lists.”

We love ’em. I use ’em almost every day, just in the to-do form. I’m not an old-school journalist type person at all, and I love lists on the ‘Net, but I do kind of hate when they’re in a slide show format (although I understand why, because more clicks = more ads = more money = that’s the point). I love lists. They are orderly. And honestly, what the fuck else really is on a day-to-day basis?

Ted Bauer