Listicles: Lazy, or Another Step in Linguistic Development?

For those unfamiliar, a listicle is an article written in the format of a list. These can range from short lists containing pictures and maybe a caption (Top Five Amazing Shots from Star Wars VII), smaller bits of text (Ten Best Things Neil Patrick Harris said on How I Met Your Mother), or even long form writing (Ten Massive Flaws in the Last Harry Potter Film). But are they good? In one sense, they must be. The format, easy and yet nuanced and relatable, has led to a level of ubiquity in American culture. Facebook has them, Buzzfeed is known for them, and even major news networks like The Washington Post and CNN are starting to use the format.

But some are frustrated with the listicles, suggesting it is merely a cheap method of creating content and driving up page views on websites that are funded through ad hosting. In addition, some wonder if listicles contribute to the ever-shortening attention span of humanity in an age where a simple Internet search can result in the ability to peruse a few paragraphs on over 1 million different websites related to the search term.

In a beautifully written opinion piece for the New Yorker, Mark O’Conner muses on what exactly is so appealing about listicles: “It [the popularity of listicles] arises out of a desire to impose order on a life, a culture, a society, a difficult matter, a vast and teeming panorama of cat adorability and nineties nostalgia.

Umberto Eco, philosopher, author and famous literary critic, considers the very idea of a list to be a representation of humanity’s yearning for control. “The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order.” Studies are showing that the Internet might be decreasing the attention span of those who use it; Microsoft performed a study with digital natives in Canada and found that attention spans have decreased by about four seconds since the advent of smartphones. However, there is not much research as to whether or not listicles contribute to this at all.

There is an argument for listicles that claims they’re a key part of a revolution against corporately controlled media, as a giving back to the people the power of published expression. Seventy years ago, someone wanting to share his or her experiences in a public forum would have to attempt publication in a newspaper, journal or other physical medium. But now, anyone with access to the Internet can share his or her thoughts in a published form, through a personal blog or a hosting site like BuzzFeed.

Not only this, but many in groups traditionally underrepresented by mass media can find identification in listicles that are about their values, their culture, and what they find funny. Examples for this include racial groups (77 Questions Black People Are Tired of Hearing), gender identifications (8 Things Gay Guys Should Start Saying to Each Other), and nationalities (10 Things You Didn’t Know About Germans).

These get more specific as well, delving into the experience of second-generation American immigrants with parents who came from Vietnam, or a half-black half-Latino gay man living in France. Now while white people might not think twice about this, a majority of people groups now can read and share headlines and articles that cater exactly to how they feel in a way mass media has been unable to.

All in all, it seems that more research should be done to determine whether or not listicles truly contribute to a shorter attention span. Either way, it seems they will continue to be a part of the Internet experience.