For years, print publications used lists as mere adornments to bigger stories. 'Boxouts' of facts or funny asides were designed to break up the text and help draw your eye in – they were the seasoning on the meat of news stories and features.
Now, of course, we're in the internet era, and the list is king. Popularized by BuzzFeed and quickly aped by the titans of old media, the 'listicle' is no longer just an amusing aside but – increasingly – the news stories and the features themselves.
The question is: why have chunks of listed information become the web’s crack cocaine? Is it a new phenomenon, or what we really wanted all along? The answers are rooted in history, biology and the way the internet is reshaping how we think and process information. And so here they are. In a list, naturally.
In 2006, a leading research company conducted an investigation into how we read web pages. After tracking the eyeballs of 232 users as they looked at thousands of sites, a clear pattern emerged.
First, we read in a horizontal movement across the top of the page. Then we move down a level and perform a second horizontal sweep. Finally, we scan down the left side in a vertical movement. In other words, a shape that looks like an “F”.
This favours lists over chunks of continuous text, because with each of these three movements, we see something distinct and easier for the mind to process. So in other words, our eyes love the shape of lists before our brain has even begun to process them.
Thanks to Twitter, Instagram et al, your brain can now no longer digest more than a handful of acronymised words at a time – LOL!
Actually, recent studies have found no evidence that this often repeated theory is true. Our ability to concentrate in wider life does not appear to have been diminished by the internet, no matter how hard it is to get teenagers to leave their phone alone for five minutes. The enduring popularity of classic novels, long movies and epic-length TV box sets are a case in point.
However, social media, news feeds and email alerts have transformed our digital experience so that we now experience a scattergun of distractions online and expect instant gratification whereever we go. This makes lists appealing because their premise is instantly decipherable and even if we do get distracted, we can come back to them easily and pick up where we left off.
You know, the cornerstone of Western morality and foundation of our modern legal system?
In the Old Testament — Exodus 20: 1—17, to be precise — Moses is handed a stone tablet inscribed with the Law of God, after leading the people of Israel out of Egypt. The 10 Commandments include some rules we’ve taken to heart ever since, such as Thou Shall Not Kill, and a few most of us now ignore, like Keep Sundays Holy and Thou Shall Not Covet Thy Neighbour’s Ass (or BMW, for that matter).
Whether you believe the story or not, The 10 Commandments is perhaps the most enduring example of why a list can be such a powerful tool for spreading ideas. Even in today’s secular Western society, most of us know roughly what the commandments are, while the rest of the Bible is somewhat harder to recall.
Had God handed Moses a long, boring essay at the top of Mount Sinai instead of a snappy list, who could say if Judeo-Christianity would have caught on in quite the same way?
The power of lists is not something that has only occurred to people bored on their lunch breaks. One of Europe’s most revered philosophers and essayists, Umberto Eco, devoted an entire book to the subject in 2009.
La Vertigine della Lista (The Infinity of Lists), traces the role of lists in human civilisation, dividing them broadly into two forms. The first is the “practical” list, such as the ones we use to order society or remember to pick up soy sauce from Tesco. The second is the “poetic” list, incorporating everything from Homer’s Iliad to “The 15 Best Homer Simpson Quotes. Ever”.
Why, according to Eco, are we so compelled by both examples? Simple: “The list is the origin of culture. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. 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.” And you thought it was just a bit of fun.
In his book The Theory of the Leisure Class, the 19th-century American economist Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption” to describe a cultural undertaking designed to impress others.
The idea is that staring thoughtfully at the pages of the Financial Times or a doorstep-sized Russian novel while taking the train makes others think we’re smart, which is worth it even if privately we’re bored to tears.
Because the internet is usually consumed in private, either sat at your desk or looking at your mobile phone, we’re more relaxed about seeking out the fun stuff we’re slightly embarrassed to like – ie, “14 Important Gifs of Meerkats Falling Over”, or MailOnline’s notorious “sidebar of shame”.
The American historian David Wallechinsky discovered lists’ popularity in 1975 when he published a collection of obscure facts and esoteric knowledge called The People’s Almanac. Realising people couldn’t get enough of toilet break–friendly chunks of trivia, he went on to co-author The Book of Lists in 1977, a bestseller that was updated right up to the early Noughties.
Wallechinsky’s theory on why his approach was so successful? “People are attracted to lists because we live in an era of overstimulation, and lists help us in organising what is otherwise overwhelming,” he said.
Like The 10 Commandments, the Seven Deadly Sins is a list Judaism used to help keep us on the straight and narrow. It is first found in the Book of Proverbs (6:16–19), referred to as “six things the Lord hateth, and seven that are an abomination unto Him”
In the modern form: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, envy, gluttony and lust. The Catholic Church also has a separate list of virtues: patience, charity, diligence, humility, kindness, temperance and — the tough one — chastity.
This ancient round-up of moral no-nos has inspired great art, from Dante’s Divine Comedy to Gwyneth Paltrow’s severed head being delivered to Brad Pitt in Se7en.
Take a good look. Whenever you enjoy a viral list or find yourself so annoyed by one you wish the internet had never been invented, Jonah Peretti is the man to blame. BuzzFeed’s founder, a 40-year-old American entrepreneur, was experimenting in viral content while the rest of the world was still figuring out how to google.
In 2001, Peretti, then a grad student, ordered a pair of customised trainers from Nike with “sweatshop” written on them. Nike refused to process his order. His email chain with the company was one of the early viral hits of the internet.
It was forwarded to millions of inboxes, picked up by newspapers around the world and led to him debating labour conditions with a Nike spokesperson on NBC. Peretti then wondered if viral success could be replicated on purpose.
His next experiment, in the Noughties, proved it could. Blackpeopleloveus.com is a spoof site set up by a fake couple desperate to prove that they feel relaxed around black people. Full of cheesy pictures and “testimonies” from black friends (“Johnny calls me ‘da man!’ That puts me at ease”), it was a superb parody of white liberal guilt and his second viral hit.
The lessons he learned – be bold, be relatable, put out a message people want to be associated with, and be funny – would go on to inform Peretti’s philosophy when he launched BuzzFeed in 2006
A simple but important point. Look at this day on Esquire's homepage. Which headline jumps out at you first? Chances are, it's the one with the number at the front (and not just because of Scarlett Johansson's unusual hair do).
The reason is that in an online world made up of an endless amount of words, numbers – unusual, non-decimal ones especially – tend to shout the loudest.
Russian-American journalist Maria Konnikova perhaps put it best in a 2014 article in US mag The New Yorker: “In an environment where dozens of headlines and stories vie for attention, numerals break up the visual field. Most of what we see online is words and images. In that context, numbers pop.”
The greatest trick listicles ever played was convincing the world they’re stupid.
On the surface, they appear to be roughly cobbled together with little thought or effort, which is why they’re fun and easy to read (and why they infuriate some as much as they entertain).
But successful lists – the ones that go viral and get shared by millions of people around the world – are far smarter than that. Here are some reasons why:
They never embarrass you
The starting point is always to ask: are people going to want others to know they’ve read this? There is a reason no one’s made “22 Hard-core Porn Clips You Have to See Right Now” yet. Lists are designed to be something you want to share as a reflection of yourself, which is why clever jokes, just causes and touching stories about the human spirit are more interesting than boobs or gossip in the new media world.
They alternate their tone
Lists on serious topics such as news or politics will intersperse the in-depth, serious points with lighter touches or 'reaction' jokes (usually a funny pic, video or gif) to keep you interested. They understand the human brain can operate on more than one level at once, and that moments of light relief make us more inclined to continue and absorb the important stuff.
The internet – particularly social media, where lists are shared – is the Wild West of language. Grammar is dead: long live slang, acronyms and chit-chat. Good list writers understand this, so rather than lecture you as though they're talking from the comment pages of The TImes, they write as if they’re sending a text to their best friend.
With a few exceptions, a good list will be between eight and 33 items in length. They never outstay their welcome. This is because they understand a lot of the internet is consumed on the go or in snatched moments at work. It's also to get you to the end, because…
They build to an emotional climax
The last item on a viral list may not be the funniest or cleverest, but it should be the most emotional. It has to move or inspire you, because that means it is more likely that your next move will be to share it.
When mankind took to documenting its finest achievements, it opted for a list.
The original Seven Wonders were compiled in an early form of travel guide, by ancient Greek poet Antipatros Sidonios. He opted for the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Lighthouse of Alexandria and – the oldest and the only one still standing – the Great Pyramid of Giza (fire and earthquakes did for the rest).
The list was updated throughout the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance up to the modern age. Today, the Seven Wonders exists in different forms, but the closest we have to a worldwide consensus was a 2001 project called New7Wonders, compiled from over 100m votes:
Great Wall Of China (China)
Christ the Redeemer (Brazil)
Machu Picchu (Peru)
Chichen Itza (Mexico)
Taj Mahal (India)
[The UK only made the long list with Stonehenge.]
How many times have you found yourself watching “countdown” shows, in which D-list rent-a-gobs feign enthusiasm for events they played no part in, or people they’ve never met? And how often do you remain watching to the end?
It’s human nature to want to know what 'wins', even if it’s a topic we care little about ranked by a system we don’t believe in. Listicles go one further by parodying the format with rankings of subjective topics or nonsensical items.
The theory is you can’t even read “The 10 Greatest Kitchen Utensils That Only do One Job” without wanting to know if the egg slicer beats the garlic press. And that theory is right.
Midway through his epic odyssey the Iliad, the ancient Greek poet paused his tale of the Trojan War, King Agamemnon and Achilles to make a list known as The Catalogue of Ships. Book Two, as it’s known within the poem, is a lengthy record of each army’s leaders, the settlements in their relative kingdoms and, even more tediously, the number of ships required to transport the men to Troy (including precise details of “weightiness”).
A bit like Saving Private Ryan pausing halfway through to dispassionately recount the towns in Normandy and the contents of Tom Hank’s ration pack. For that reason, scholars have argued over the significance of The Catalogue of Ships throughout the centuries since, some swearing Homer didn’t write it, others claiming it is there so whoever performs the poem could wow audiences with their powers of memory. Or give listeners an excuse for a quick toilet break.
Devoted to self-improvement, the great American polymath started The 13 Virtues at 20 and added to it throughout his life. It reads:
1. “Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”
2. “Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself.”
3. “Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”
4. “Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”
5. “Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself.”
6. “Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut unnecessary actions.”
7. “Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and speak accordingly.”
8. “Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”
9. “Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”
10. “Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness.”
11. “Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.”
12. “Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.”
13. “Humility. Imitate Jesus.”
Tough to stick to, yes, but he did then add: “I hope some of my descendants may follow the example and reap the benefit.”
Ethnic German businessman Oskar Schindler is credited with saving the 1,200 Jewish refugees on his list during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories after bribing officials.
A comprehensive annual record of which children have been naughty or nice, this list has been a vital discipline tool for embattled parents during the winter months for centuries. Famously, Claus checks it twice.
Finally and most importantly, in a world of endless, rambling opinion blogs written by everyone on everything that ever happens anywhere, a numbered list is a promise that, at the very least, what you’re reading will eventually come to a clear and definite end.