on the topic of N things

listicles, are articles with the content organized as numerical (most frequent) or bulleted (less frequent) lists; they are the flat, chalk-like wedding mint version of news and opinion we can’t get enough of. they persist in both mainstream journalistic works and social blogs, but it appears to be a staple form in the on-line media. recent headlines:

  • 4 ways to…
  • 7 secrets/habits/signs…
  • 9 steps…
  • 22 tips…
  • 5 things…[you do/should do] and 5 things [you don’t/shouldn’t]
  • 6 reasons why…
  • 10 tools/apps/people/books…
  • 1 easy thing

listicles give us advice and distill a topic into a neatly packaged form. more than often, they represent opinions and, sometimes, not without irony. npr10 Reasons Why We Love Making Lists; and, axonn, A list of 6 reasons to explain why we love lists so much. in 1517, martin luther wrote The Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. a little lite-reading at the time.

listicles are like a coffee at 2pm, however; they provide an immediate fix but facilitate a crash hours later.

firstly, they’re popular and we love them, but why? it begins with the headline of course. from a december, 2013 article by the new yorker

A headline that is graphically salient in some way has a greater chance of capturing our eye, and in an environment where dozens of headlines and stories vie for attention, numerals break up the visual field. [the] headline catches our eye in a stream of content; it positions its subject within a preexisting category and classification system.

lists are purported to relieve stress and focus the mind. they are finite and quantify the content upfront, which creates an agreeable reading experience. so says the new yorker, “[the] mental heavy lifting of conceptualization, categorization, and analysis is completed well in advance of actual consumption.” that’s almost as pretentious as it sounds.

top ten lists are the most popular – more precisely, lists ending in zero; those ending in five come in 2nd. termed the “top-10 effect“, it speaks to a bias for round-number lists and was studied by scholars mathew s. isaac of seattle university and robert m. schindler of rutgers. i recommend it. they believe it biases how we perceive certain items.

but, what about the crash? listicles are a cliff’s notes read; there’s obviously more to the story, what about the back-story? stephen covey didn’t start it but he certainly profited from it and i think may have kicked the door wide open for acceptance. or tolerance. mitch ditkoff, an outspoken management consultant, says lists give us an instant opportunity to disagree.

are we that effective at distilling essence into a single bullet, enough information to formulate dissent or objection? i’m fortunate, i seldom receive comments to my posts, because that is the scope of rebuttal and dialog. the new yorker article said it, “[they are] our preferred way of receiving and organizing information at a subconscious level.”

problem is, and this is my point, listicles spoon-feed us and we eagerly digest it. our response is instant and played-out in the comments section, which are often more entertaining than the original article. our method of response is honed by a related form in 140 to 160 characters. me thinks we’ve lost the ability for social intercourse and have instead adopted negative social discourse.

i find the psychology fascinating and understand lists have their place. my preference, however, is to learn a little more. with listicles, we’re left asking… what’s the motivation, the impetus, the thought process… how did/does it feel… what are the alternatives and their cost? those are the details, the tasty bits as anthony bordain would say, that i prefer to read.

the npr piece says that lists can keep us from procrastinating (#10). i hope to write my own list on that – 7 techniques to combat 2 bad habits: apathy and procrastination.


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