4 Questions You May Not Know I Had About Lists

The internet appears to have an obsession with “listicles.”  If you spend any time on sites like Buzzfeed, Cracked, ThoughtCatalog, or MentalFloss, you know what I’m talking about.  Listicles are lists that are detailed enough to be considered an article- hence, the portmanteau of “list” and “article.”   Most notably, the aforementioned sites have made them a part of their daily repertoire.  There are even sites like Listverse, which is dedicated solely to lists on just about everything related to culture, science, history, technology, and life in general.  I am interested in exploring these detailed lists and their place in digital writing.

Lists as we think of them tend to be practical or a way to keep track of things, such as shopping, tasks to complete, things you want, or guests for an event– all things that exist in a personal and useful context.  Internet lists like the ones seen on Cracked, MentalFloss, and occasionally Buzzfeed tend to be trivia-oriented, and generally have some sort of educational value (Cracked’s 21 Beloved Famous People Everyone Forgets Did Awful Things or Buzzfeed’s 42 Incredibly Weird Facts You’ll Want to Tell People Down the Pub).  You’ll often see practical applications as well, like “workouts you can do at home,” or my favorite, the constant stream of 20+ item lists of unbelievably wonderful-sounding recipes put out by BuzzfeedFood.

However, there are a lot of irrelevant, distracting, and useless ones out there. Who really needs to see Buzzfeed’s “26 Disney Characters Reimagined as Hogwarts Students,” or ThoughtCatalog’s “The Girl You’re Pretending to Be on Instagram”?

13 Watercolor Sloth Versions of the Game of Thrones Characters?   I got a little time…


Texts: My primary texts/materials will be the aforementioned websites (Cracked, Buzzfeed, ThoughtCatalog, Listverse, etc.), as well as shorter, more to-the-point lists.  I’ll also want to look at print versions of “listicles,” as they show up in magazines and other print media as well.

Question/Problem:  I’m most curious to know…

  • What makes this listing style so popular online, especially in a context that could be seen as distracting or pointless?
  • Why do people decide to use this instead of just writing about stuff without dividing it up?
  • What stylistic choices- tone, use of images, length, etc.- do writers use?  Are there differences when you look at online vs. print?  One website vs. a different website?  Staff posts vs. community posts?
  • Ranked, thematic, and random listicles- how do they differ stylistically?  Why?

Format:  A list or series of lists, of course!  Likely on a WordPress/Tumblr sort of platform.

Model Texts: Once I decide if it’ll be just one big list or a series of small ones, I’ll decide if I want to model after a certain website’s format, or not.  I would like to try to imitate the general style of Cracked or Buzzfeed.

Questions/Concerns: I have a tendency to think of something and get very excited about it without thinking it through totally.  Plus, I often am too narrow or too broad in my topic choices, or don’t ask the right questions.  In this case, I also chose something that I may not be quite qualified to talk about, as I don’t study language or writing in a great depth.  I just have a general frame of an idea, and will probably need to flesh it out a bit more or pare it down.  I’m really interested to hear what you guys think, or any thoughts you have to offer.


9 thoughts on “4 Questions You May Not Know I Had About Lists”

  1. Hey, Gab,

    I personally like lists, though I hate the term listicles; disgusting.

    Your proposal raised a two fold response for me. (ha!)

    1. What connection does this particular digital essay topic have with your personal or scholarly goals? What’s the personal “so what?” Other than noticing a trend, why do you want to take up this topic?

    2. Second, the profusion of online lists has been much commented upon (Google “why are listicles so popular” and you’ll get nearly 1 million hits). I think nearly all the writers we’ve read this semester have addressed your question about why people love lists instead of narrative or longform prose (especially our friend Christopher Johnson in _Microstyle_). What particular angle do you want to take on this conversation? Connected to my first question, is there a way to bring together your scholarly interests/pursuits and this topic to contribute in a way that opens up new questions about the nature of reading, writing, or knowing online?

    Big questions, I know. These are my initial thoughts. 🙂 Take them or leave them as you will.

    P.S.: I personally really needed to see 26 Disney Characters Reimagined as Hogwarts Students.

  2. Gab,

    After reading your post and Janel’s subsequent reply (and I’d have to say I’d raise similar questions), I started thinking that perhaps Davidson’s “Now You See It” might be a useful primary text to use for your project. I say that because we use lists, generally speaking, to avoid the kind of selective attention/fractured attention spans that Davidson discusses: by organizing items/topics into a list, we can theoretically better keep track of them.

    In another sense, though, what if you thought about lists and listicles (definitely an icky term, but “articlists” isn’t much better) in terms of online reading practices? I’m thinking specifically about some of the points Kylie raised in her x1 post about Baron. Also, what is it about presenting seemingly “useless” information as a list that makes people want to read it? What makes a list about “26 Disney Characters Reimagined as Hogwarts Students” more rhetorically appealing and effective than a traditional article?

    Just some more food for thought as you iron out your topic!

  3. Gab,

    First, you’re very funny. Second, this Janel-person should think about teaching writing. She has excellent questions and advice to offer you.

    Because I suspect that there is a connection between this project and your interests in art, design, history, preservation. Specifically, I wonder if you might want to think about lists less as verbal texts and more as visual artifacts or objects—holographs, even. (Am I phrasing that distinction in a way that makes sense?)

    Here I am reminded of a website I like, even though it now seems defunct: Lists of Note, which reproduces—not just transcribes—lists written by famous people. You might also want to look at other non-digital lists and see how their forms align or differ with listicles.

    In any case, I think there’s something here—although I agree with Janel that you want to figure out what you can bring to this project and why you feel called to doing it.

    Good luck!


  4. Gab,

    I’m really interested in reading your final product, as I find myself strangely drawn to listicles (although, like Janel, I hate the term).

    My initial reaction was that you would benefit from placing your essay within a larger framework, but because that has already been addressed in the comments, I’ll move on to my second piece of advice. You discuss how there are so many different types of lists (humorous, informative, instructional, inane, etc). But I wonder if trying to discuss ALL of these forms might be too much. It seems to me that there is such a difference between a list that tells you how you can work out at home and a list that details hogwarts reimaginings, that I wonder what kind of claims you can make about both of them.

    Hope that helps!

  5. I have always been obsessed with the lists of 1- the movies I have not seen 2- the books I have not read 3- the songs I have not listened to (and sometimes the places I have not visited, but that’s really depressing) listed by others or by myself!
    One of my most pleasurable procrastinations these days, is to add new films to my IMDB watch-list, and to remove the films that I have already seen from it. For every ten films that I add, I might be able to remove one! Playing with these lists organizes my mind, and gives me a sense of seeing some concrete points in an abstract future! I enjoy discovering new films following the threads of the ones I have already seen or by reading other users’ lists randomly. I’m also crazy about IMDB’s Top 250, as it’s a dynamic list and I might never master it totally!
    IMDB users are sharing their personal lists categorizing and re-categorizing their personal priorities under various titles. These informal lists could weaken the established authority of something like Rotten Tomatoes’ Top 100 Films of All times.
    I suggest you have a look at IMDB’s user lists for your essay, and see how they are redefining and democratizing the meaning of ” must see” .

  6. It will come as no surprise to anyone following my rampant posts on the topic a few weeks ago on the class Twitter feed, that I love lists, and therefore find this project fascinating. I too was going to draw your attention to Lists of Note, but Joe beat me to it! However, I can point you to this article from a few months ago that I remember reading with some interest and amusement: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/12/listicles-articles-written-lists-steven-poole. Some of the points that the author makes (in annotated list form, naturally) might give you some subsets to look at, and (as Chris notes) might be usefully linked to Davidson.

    1. P.S. I don’t know if this makes things worse or better, but whenever I see the word “listicle,” I always imagine it as a portmanteau word for “list” and “popsicle.” Do with that what you will.

  7. Gab,

    It strikes me that not having “studied writing in great depth” is not a bad thing–after all, digital writing still has the shiny “newness” on it that nobody thus far can lay claim to expertise. Plus, it lets you ask the question: “what the heck do these listicles DO for people?”–a question that’s trendy lately, not adequately answered, and very important when we’re thinking about how reading as a practice–and thinking, as a practice–changes in response to how people are trained to organize information by the stuff they read.

    Teacher moment: Your last question, “Ranked, thematic, and random listicles- how do they differ stylistically? Why?” is probably the core question here, and you should not let that one fall off the table. Why do these things exist as separate practices? Why do we need them? What do their differences allow them to do differently, and why do we NEED that?

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