You know what listicles are: those “20 Reasons Why x” and “7 Moments When y” articles that populate the web. They’re everywhere on social media. The word “listicle” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2016, but this shouldn’t be considered the start of the phenomenon; they’ve been used in print media for many, many decades.
I thought we had gotten beyond this, but I’m still seeing listicles everywhere, especially in the marketing space, and I’m absolutely baffled as to why. I simply can’t understand the appeal, especially on industry sites. One would think we would be reading content with some depth to it, but no. Listicles, everywhere. I sat at my laptop, tears in my eyes, and wondered what was to become of us.
Listicles are bad. You should stop clicking on them. Here’s a list of reasons why. Number 4 might surprise you!
1. They Displace Content With Depth.
You cannot get into a topic in any real depth in a paragraph or two. As a result, when you read a listicle on a topic, you’re not learning anything about it, especially since most listicles are gripe posts and hot takes. I have finished listicles, especially industry ones, with the distinct impression that I’d been robbed; I had invested my time and my attention, and gotten nothing in return.
In this sense, listicles can be compared to the Letters to the Editor section of a local newspaper: opinion pieces with virtually no information. I guess content like this can be useful, I used to steal the Letters to the Editor page out of the paper when I was a teenager, but I have grown since then, and my desire for information has evolved since I was fourteen. I want content with substance.
2. They Feel Dated.
The listicle, as mentioned above, is not new. Cosmopolitan magazine comes to mind as one of the worst offenders (9 Ways to Please Your Man, etc.), and the web, for a moment, gave the format a fresh feel as suddenly you could find listicles on basically any topic. But that honeymoon vibe has faded, particularly as they format has led to deceptive headlines and spammy ads.
The format is so tired now that I had the privilege of listening to a writer read a personal non-fiction piece that borrowed the form of a listicle. That’s right; it’s so tired it’s being lampooned by the literary crowd.
The form has been used so much, in so many situations, that you know what you’re looking at before you ever click the link. Whenever I see an obvious listicle headline, I feel tired, weighed down, discouraged. Because I already know what’s behind the link, and I know it’s nothing good
3. They Encourage Clickbait.
For those of you who don’t know, and because the word “clickbait” has been subject to both misuse and overuse, clickbait headlines are headlines that are intentionally deceptive. This can include the hyperlink text or the snippet text accompanying the link, and they’re often not outright lies; they’re usually sensationalized or misleading.
Clickbait headlines are a scourge of the internet. They garner clickthroughs for websites that thrive on them, and can also be the basis of malware attacks and/or distribution. Clickbait functions by taking advantage of a “curiosity gap;” the headline gives enough information to make the reader curious, but not enough to satisfy that curiosity, leading the user to click through.
I think of myself as a pretty savvy consumer of web content, and as a result I don’t run into a lot of problems with clickbait headlines, but when I do it’s more often than not a listicle that’s involved.
Clickbait headlines are very easy to make for listicles, because it’s easy to play on the emotions of the viewer without fulfilling that promise within the article itself. So if you hate clickbait, and I know you do, stop clicking on listicles, because the two thrive together.
4. They Might Make You a Worse Writer.
If you’re a writer, you already know that you learn craft and style from reading. This is why it’s important for us to read from lots of different sources, both online and analog. It trains us in how to better communicate in text.
So it stands to reason that reading bad writing can make you a worse writer.
And listicles contain some of the laziest writing on the web. Along with the fact that they fail to reach any level of depth, they are often sloppy in both form and grammar. This is not a problem for most people, they’re written well enough to be understood, and the casual style lends itself well to communicating with most of their audience, especially since each entry on the listicle only has to be a few sentences long.
But craft is important, especially for people who are writing long-form content. And reading garbage only teaches you how to write garbage.
5. They Could be Bad for Your Brain.
Listicles are like the television of the web. Okay, no. Hulu and YouTube and Netflix are the television of the web, but listicles are similarly just brain candy. A few sentences per item, often based on the Buzzfeed model and filled with animated gifs and other visual elements, they allow your brain to coast in neutral.
The thing that keeps your brain in shape is using it actively, and your brain reacts differently to actual content than it does to listicles. This is something of particular importance to me, as I’ve evolved into a middle-aged husk of my former self and had to think about ways to keep myself sharp as old age looms on the horizon.
When you engage with long form content, your brain must analyze and organize the information as you absorb it. With ranked lists, such as listicles, that analysis is already done for you. It’s like simple carbohydrates instead of complex carbohydrates. One makes you work a little harder and rewards you with nutrients, and the other just gives you a sugar rush and a bit of a headache.
I’m not here to shake my broom at you and tell you to go read a book; in fact it’s safe to say that I do the majority of my reading on screens. But for your brain’s sake, skip the listicles.
6. They’re Often Emotionally Manipulative.
Listicle headlines are often written to pull on your heartstrings. A lot of people call this “clickbait,” but these headlines aren’t necessarily deceptive. They certainly can be, but clickbait is by definition deceptive, and what we’re talking about here is just emotional manipulation.
Listicles rely on provoking not just your curiosity, but on provoking emotions such as anger, outrage, surprise, inspiration, and excitement to get you to click through, and the headline is designed specifically to appeal to those emotions. Not only that but the content of the listicle is designed to keep you reading through to the end, often tickling those same emotional triggers, and often through multiple pages (which means multiple clicks and multiple ad impressions) along the way.
And often, you don’t even get the pay off for that emotional arousal, leaving you feeling unsatisfied.
7. They Work.
Listicles are easy. They require little commitment from readers in terms of both time and effort. You get a little emotional jolt out of them. There’s one out there (probably way more than one) that will confirm some existing bias you hold and that’s satisfying too. The link text is always tempting, and using the Buzzfeed model, you’re going to see some funny gifs, and who doesn’t love funny gifs?
They gain ad impressions, they support native marketing, they make money. You are buying that content with your attention and your browser space, which are hot commodities in the online ad space, and people are making money off of it.
Buzzfeed, perhaps the monarch of listicle publishing, made three hundred million dollars in revenue in 2018. This was not all generated from listicles; Buzzfeed also produces some fun video content and quizzes and heartstring pulling slideshow content, but it’s all in the same vein of mindless entertainment.
Your apportionment of your attention changes the web. What you look at, what we all look at, encourages some types of media and discourages other types. This is a kind of power. Use it wisely. Consider what you want the web of the future to look like; do you want slideshows full of gifs and blinking, flashing ads? Do you want thoughtful, in-depth content? Do you want to see a mix of both?
Consider what you want to see and apportion your attention accordingly. Me? Listicles make me feel tired.