That’s it. I’m officially suffering from list fatigue. Maybe you’ve felt the same way, too.
Social media has been consumed by lists. And, yes, I will admit I’ve written plenty of them myself. Once word got out that lists encourage sharing and drive viral content on the web, it seems all writing, all virtual fact sharing and digital entertainment became decidedly list bound.
I stumbled upon a New Yorker article that gave some rationale for communicating via lists. Apparently we like to consume information in easy-to-digest bits, and we’re more likely to dive into a task – in this case reading – if we are sure we can both start and finish. Besides, the New Yorker argued, we are inherently list builders. How many of us have been saved from forgetting the milk at the grocery store by the intrepid list? Lists must be our modus operandi. Or are they?
I’m not sold on this trend. Here’s my … er … list of reasons why.
- Lists cheapen writing. Remember when a good article had a catchy title, a compelling lead-in, a well-developed story, and an impactful conclusion? Lists provide none of that.
- Life is not a Letterman monologue. Granted it worked for the late night comedian, but it doesn’t follow that every list is entertaining. In fact, integral to the humor in those comedy bits was that the list format itself was inherently funny, reducing sometimes serious matters into a topical countdown. The willy nilly throwing together of ideas and numbering rarely capture that well-crafted satirical build up.
- Internet lists falsely suggest complete coverage of an idea. When a piece begins “The Five Best Reasons …,” we sincerely expect the content to deliver on the promise. Rarely do often hastily constructed rankings reach that level of thoroughness. This, in turn, irks readers who tend to take the title quite seriously. Check out article comments for proof. How many times do we see remarks like, “Hey, you forgot one!”? That level of engagement shows me people really do hope for the reward the title promised. This makes for sloppy journalism.
- The number of items in the list is often arbitrary. As a writer, I’ve had plenty of assignments where I’ve had to argue that I simply can’t find “Four Good Reasons.” Sometimes there are only three. This means something in that list I delivered just doesn’t belong. I take the craft of writing seriously, and force molding an idea that doesn’t fit feels like cheating.
- Remember what your mother told you about other people jumping off the bridge? Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t make it right. Doesn’t even make it a good idea. We need some content variety, people. Really.
- Ideas are organic and are rarely linear. Forcing content into a list format – even if it’s funny cats – takes away the freedom to meander through a story or an idea. But when we speak or think, we move freely all through and around a topic. Life is full of, “Oh that reminds me” and “On the other hand” moments. If you drive me down a list, I probably didn’t get to stop and smell the roses on the way.
The most important reason isn’t on the list (but would have been number 7)
Above all, the plethora of internet lists is clear testament that much of what we consume on the web is simply content for the sake of content. Sites like Buzzfeed crank out hundreds of articles a day simply to feed the machine. How many of them have any real value?
Yes, running through a list of 18 silly dog photos or six ways to know I found my soulmate might take up just the right amount of time to wait for the next subway train. But so would putting my phone in my pocket and saying hello to the person next to me or quietly meditating or letting my mind meander down a creative path.
Perhaps the biggest reason I dislike internet lists is they represent the ultimate in digital distraction. Life is not lists, and good writing should happen when we actually have something to say. Rather than consuming endless lists of stuff en masse, we should remember to go out and play or indulge in some mindful moments. Lists have taken over the internet simply because our meticulously monitored click-throughs show they’re incredibly effective. It’s mass manipulation on a mind-blowing scale.
I think we’re better than that.