10 Reasons Why Lists Are Ubiquitous: a Mr. Grumpypants Exclusive

BuzzFeed's intrepid investigation into, uh, secrets. I'm sure this is gonna be good.

BuzzFeed’s intrepid investigation into, uh, secrets.

With the rise of the Interwebz has come the advent of listicles, spread out across our browser screens like the splayed limbs of persistent squid monsters, sucking us in with their goopy, sucky tentacles. Here are the top ten reasons why listlicles have infested our computers and minds:

  1. Lists can be mindlessly produced ad infinitum. They’re the writer’s version of a paper airplane or instant mac’n’cheese. You don’t need to actually figure anything out or, indeed, know much at all about your subject matter. You can just pick a subject at random and then blather on about various aspects of it, filling up space by making obvious statements that you rephrase a couple times and then bolster with other equally obvious statements. Example: “Ten Reasons Why Trucks Are Better Than Cars. 1. Trucks have more cargo space. Because a truck is essentially a giant wheelbarrow attached to a motor, you can haul more stuff in a pickup than in a car. That comes in handy whether you’re moving into a new home, transporting supplies to your work site, or jamming your friends in on your way to this month’s hottest concert!” See what I did there? I just made an obvious statement—“Pickup trucks have more cargo room than cars”—and then I repeated it throughout two more sentences.
  2. Don’t worry: your readers are stupid or, what amounts to the same thing, rushed. That’s the whole point of a list, you read it when you want instant gratification rather than slowly developed nuance. Consequently, the author can be either repetitive or self-contradictory (or both) in a list. The reader won’t be closely connecting the different list items into a coherent whole, so it doesn’t really matter whether they’re holistically coherent.
  3. Lists are an established brand. Since, as was shown in #2, their raison d’etre is instant gratification, they’re really good at delivering short, sharp punchlines—the sort of thing that makes 21st century kids say “Oh, SNAP! He just went there!” Sometimes this works really well, like if you have a pile of incisive one-liners lying around. And because it works well sometimes (and those sometimes tend to go viral, since we share things we like), lists in general acquire a veneer of reliability. Like hamburgers: any idiot can slap together ground beef into a bun shape, but since some idiots do it really well, anyone who manages to brand their lump of ground beef as a hamburger gets to ride the coattails of the best hamburgarians in the world.
  4. The gist of a list can be concisely conveyed. Again, this is a function of the genre’s simplicity: there’s little subtlety or complexity in a list, which is the literary equivalent of smacking a scarecrow with a baseball bat over and over again. And since there’s not much there in the first place, there’s not much to convey through a title or teaser description. Consider the title of this list: 10 Reasons Why Lists Are Ubiquitous. No ambiguity, right? You knew exactly what you were getting into when you started reading. Compare this to, say, Montaigne’s essay on how philosophy teaches us how to die, in which he says…oh, wait, that’s right: I can’t concisely describe the gist of that essay because it’s an effing essay, with wandering tangents of thought and convoluted lines of reasoning. Not “10 Ways Philosophy Teaches Us How to Die.” Why? Because Michel de Montaigne was f**king classy.
  5. If you run out of things to say in a list, you can pretend to say something and then backtrack, as long as you cover your backtracking with snark. Like I did in #4: I was illustrating how shallow lists are by comparing them to the complexity of Montaigne’s essay, but then when it was time for me to explain just what is so special and complex about Montaigne’s essay, I did so by saying how unlike a list it is. This is circular reasoning—positing A based on B, and then positing B based on A—but I’ll bet you didn’t notice, since I deployed Withering Contempt via my Snip-Snap-Shrill voice.
  6. Lists can be arbitrarily long or short. I guess this is true for most any kind of writing, but in a more complicated (read: grown-up) genre, the different parts would need to be connected (both between one another and as a whole) in a kind of structural integrity. Lists have no complexity: they are literally a block on top of a block on top of a block…etc. Therefore, you can arbitrarily stop a list whenever you feel like it. Like now, for instance: the title promises you ten reasons why lists are ubiquitous, but does it really matter whether I’m giving you ten reasons or six? I’ll bet that the only reason the “ten” title has nicer ring to it than the “six” title is because our mathematical system is based on iterations of ten (i.e. on numerals zero through nine). This has nothing to do with form matching content; it’s pure marketing, like food products that are “ready in one, two, three!” because three is a magic number. Why should numerology (read: superstition) determine how long or short our texts are?
  7. Oh, right: because we’re rushed idiots.
It's turtles all the way down, bro.

It’s turtles all the way down, bro.


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