Many reasons why listicles are nonsense

By Simon Brown / Columnist

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There is a reason why the most profound writing in the English language cannot be sensibly expressed in BuzzFeed headlines. The list article — or “listicle” — as a genre cannot capture the irony and self-doubt that challenges readers’ sensibilities. Serious online news outlets and magazines ought not to be tempted by its promises of easy “clicks.” 

The listicle has risen to prominence within the last few years, along with BuzzFeed, the self-styled “news” site that popularized the form. It was not born on the site, however. The humor site Cracked made comparatively creative use of the form before it became associated primarily with Miley Cyrus GIFs and cat photos. Now, however, the listicle pervades blogs and other “news” sites.

More recently, the genre has seemed to garner sufficient gravitas to address issues of considerable importance. Consider BuzzFeed’s “Everything You Need To Know About The Deadly Extremist Group Ravaging Iraq And Syria,” a listicle providing several paragraphs, interspersed with photographs, detailing the history of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. It addresses an urgent topic bereft of sarcasm and humor — with no recourse to GIFs whatsoever.

One might point to such an example of measured, mature reporting as proof that the listicle can convey serious information and deserves serious attention. The problems of credibility, however, lie not in the subject matter but in the form itself.

Whether in news reporting such as this or in opinions writing, the listicle makes claims to comprehensiveness, which it cannot deliver. In this particularly egregious instance, the title purports to summarize the entirety of ISIS in 22 photos and captions. But, even when not made explicit, the numbered list implies finality. The arbitrary number of list items for any article gives the reader the impression that either the author decided on “16 Profound Margaret Atwood Quotes That Will Enlighten You About The World” because he got tired after 16 and stopped typing or because there are exactly 16 quotes in Atwood’s corpus capable of profound insight. 

Either the author’s choice is inexplicable or it is total, and readers rarely want to accept the inexplicable.

We know that no reader can learn everything important about one of the most dynamic military forces in the Middle East in 22 captions, just as we know that Atwood wrote far more than 16 enlightening passages. Anyone who actually needs to know about ISIS — that is, any informed American voter — would benefit from reading a continuous supply of news coverage and historical analysis, rather than ending on one listicle with the satisfaction that he or she now knows everything. Anyone who seeks insight from Atwood should read “The Handmaid’s Tale” and make his or her own list of quotations.

This fault inhabits the list format more so than any other. The conceit of totality dissipates along with the numbered items. An article on “Some Profound Margaret Atwood Quotes” with an unnumbered sampling of quotes would convey a significantly different message than the listicle. 

But the listicle’s appeal rests in the simple, cognitively satisfying structure, in which readers receive exactly what they expect from the article. The listicle confirms precisely how long the reader will have to exercise their attention on a piece — and since the disjoint list lacks any fluidity or unity, he or she can leave at any time without missing anything important. 

None of that poses a problem for news reporting but it does for the listicle editorial. Essay and opinions writing ought to challenge readers’ expectations and beliefs. It provides new perspectives on common issues, capable of stopping any conventional wisdom in its tracks. At its best, it can lead the reader through the author’s own self-doubt and conclude on a more profound and considered note. 

The listicle, like the five-paragraph essay, cannot challenge a reader’s expectations because its appeal is its expectation. If a reader expects something like the Huffington Post’s “21 Numbers That Will Help You Understand Why Ferguson Is About More Than Michael Brown,” they will get those 21 — and they certainly won’t challenge a prior-held belief about Ferguson’s national and social significance. If they happen to disagree with any of the points made, they can just skip that list item. One need not worry about discomfort or self-criticism.

Beyond these, several other problems pervade the listicle genre. I would include more here but I would not know where to start. Even a list couldn’t possibly convey them. 

Write to Simon at spb40@pitt.edu.

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