Listicles are quickly becoming the line in the new media sand.
As each print publication embarks on its own difficult rebirth on the internet, the smart, witty, addictive but inherently lightweight lists that have fuelled the phenomenal success of online-only companies like BuzzFeed, Cracked and The Huffington Post are either being either adapted, snottily dismissed or outright ripped off by long-standing broadsheets and magazines.
Even the New Yorker weighed in on the debate recently with 10 Paragraphs About Lists You Need In Your Life Right Now, predictably the smartest thing written on listicles so far ("10 Judeo-Christian Moral Injunctions You Need in Your Life Right Now” is how it imagined the 10 Commandments appearing online).
But entertaining lists did not start with online 90s nostalgia or Mean Girls reactions gifs. The accessible format of citing lots of examples of something in a row and breaking information into digestible chunks has been used in some of the most influential texts ever written, long before people spent their days looking at animals who are disappointed in them. Here we round up just 6.
1 | A Modest Proposal
Internet listicles are often deployed for the purpose of satire (main target: other internet listicles), but Irish writer Jonathan Swift laid down the blueprint in 1729 with what is widely considered English literature’s definitive example of an ironic lampooning. His essay argued the Irish should ease their economic woes by selling their own children to the rich to eat as delicacies. Written with a straight face throughout, the numbered arguments were really mocking heartless attitudes towards poverty with a level of snark that would make The Onion proud.
2 | The Art Of War
When Chinese military genius Sun Tzu decided to make a record of his strategies and tactics, it was the listicle he opted for. Over 13 points (‘Laying plans’ / ‘Attack’, ‘Situational Position’, etc.) he laid out what was the definitive military text of its time.
3 | Kama Sutra
Two words that have been conjuring immature sniggers since roughly 400 BCE, this Samskrit collection of sex tips is split over 7 parts including ‘Acquiring a wife’, ‘Other men’s wives’ and ‘Occult practices’, all of which we’d love to see illustrated in gif format.
4 | The Seven Deadly Sins
To help keep members on its congregation in tune with their inner guilt and self-loathing, Christians devised a shorthand of vices split into seven easily digestible parts. They are, as anyone who has seen Seven will tell you, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Pride and Envy, the last of which usually inspires snarky articles about listicle websites.
5 | The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World
Long before listicles were used to round up the best photos of Miley Cyrus sticking her tongue out, Hellenic sightseers were sharing lists of the best wonders of the world, including the pyramids, hanging gardens of Babylon and the colossus. They picked ‘seven’ because ancient Greeks believed the number represented perfection and plenty. Today, the number is probably more like 33.
6 | The Nine Circles Of Hell
Some of the best modern listicles make complex ideas or stories accessible. In the 14th century, the poet Dante had a similar thought, making an allegorical meditation on the depths of human sin and suffering palatable with a snappy ‘9 circles’ format. This allowed audiences during the middle ages to refer to the text in useful shorthand, for example Italian aristocrats might exclaim "LOL: I can SO relate to the third circle of hell in this poem right now" after over indulging during a feast.