Will the ‘listicle’ ever die, or is something else going on here?
A very astute music professor of mine once told me that, no matter what time in history you look at, 98% of music is junk. It may be catchy, or have a good beat, or be fun to sing, but it’s basically aural McDonalds. The two percent, he maintained, is the good stuff—the work that transcends time.
Although he sounded like a judgmental snob, he really wasn’t. Music is for us to relish, he would say, just don’t deprive yourself of some decent musical nutrition once in a while.
You can say the same about writing. The internet is like a junk food factory of content—pumping out conveyor belt-loads of Ring Dings®, candy cigarettes and Pop Rocks®. But, there’s occasional filet mignon to be had in there, too.
One type of junky content that usually makes its way to cupboard of our consciousness is the ubiquitous “listicle.” You see them every day:
3 things to never, ever wear on a first date
10 ways your life will radically change in the next decade
7 reasons to stockpile cash before the end of this year
I just made those up. As a writer, a listicle is pretty easy to whip together. Start with a little research, throw in an intro, sprinkle in some organization (to taste) and voila! Instant blog post. Serves thousands. A quick meal? Yes. Nutritious? Well…
Most people think the listicle is a digital age invention created by hacky interns at Buzzfeed or Huffington Post. Actually, list-type articles and content go way back. Journalists in the 1800s, mad and foaming from deadline pressure, filled empty newspaper columns with them. And lazy copywriters in the 1960s fell back on them when they couldn’t find a differentiator for their clients. (5 reasons you should bank with First National!)
Why do we love listicles so?!? Let me count the ways (profound apologies to Shakespeare!):
They make the complex seem easier to digest. We all have too much to do, yet we all want to be in the know. Listicles are life’s Cliff’s Notes. You walk away with the major points, which is easier to remember in this swarm of information we all live in.
They’re easier to read (and maybe even fun). Articles have a flow, with a hierarchy of information, transitions, a style, and—in the great articles—a sense of crescendo. Not listicles. They’re basically Sesame Street compiled: “1” is this, “2” is that, etc. Listicles are easy to read on the go, or in chunks, and not lose your place or the scope of the work. You just bounce through them.
They’re a reflection of our time. Again, think endless heaps of junk food and occasional filet mignon coming off the never-ending conveyor belt of the internet. Listicles are like a quick, tidy buffet—allowing us to sample information, sites and writers to see if they’re worth coming back to for seconds.
They’re practical and quick. No flowery language or philosophy to wade through. Listicles get right to it, without being deep, or hard, or making me think. Please, don’t make me think.
For these reasons and more, listicles work. When you look at site analytics, the headlines with numbers in them are typically the top pullers. Some of the internet’s most successful blogs, like Hubspot, use a number in the headline more than half the time, according to some sources. There are content producers and writers out there who maintain that a listicle will pull up to 70% more readers than other types of headlines.
I suspect listicles aren’t going anywhere. They tend to go in and out of style, but even in times of low use they’re always there, lingering toward the back of the party, keeping the small-talk alive.
– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group