The problem with listicles

context is everything


I begin each day with a mug of black coffee and a relaxed stroll through Zite, a wonderful iOS app that delivers an eclectic, personalized mix of news, gossip, sports, video and other curated content. Zite is my morning paper. I am partial to in-depth political reporting, food and wine stories, articles about books and the arts, and CFL news. Lately, however, the lengthy, well-considered discussions I have come to enjoy is increasingly crowded off my iPad screen by listicles.

You’re familiar with listicles, even if the name means nothing to you. A listicle is a cross between an article and a list. As in, “Ten Books to Read Before You Actually Grow Up”, or “22 Pictures of Miley Cyrus’ Open Mouth” or “80 Things to Know About Don Cherry”. You get the idea. Apparently this journalistic hybrid has been recognized formally since 2004, although it is only now that listicles have achieved critical mass in the world of online reporting.

How are we to explain the rising popularity of this insubstantial, puerile form of reportage? Is there any effective way to account for the “strange magnetism of the pointless,” as Mark O’Connell has called it in a recent New Yorker column?

Linguist Arika Okrent, writing in The University of Chicago Magazine, argues that the listicle “caters to our internet-fed distractible tendencies…replacing complex arguments and reasoned transitions with snack-packs of bullet points.” Our need for such snack-packs, she goes on to explain, arises from the fact that, “to express ourselves we must make choices about what comes next, and that can be difficult. Listing makes this process easier.” Unsurprisingly, Okrent concludes her analysis with Eight Fun Facts About the Listicle.

Listicles can be great fun, but at bottom they have no bottom. On occasion they may inform, but they seldom stimulate and rarely provoke. Frequently, their over-simplification merely distorts or misinforms. They are, in other words, little more than another distraction for the chronically distracted who can’t be bothered to think for themselves. Listicles are for the lazy.

They stand in sharp contrast to another trend in the online world, the resurgence of what are usually called long-form articles. Once the dominant form of magazine journalism, long-form articles range from 1,500 to perhaps 30,000 words. In their level of detail and narrative inventiveness, they bridge the gap between conventional print journalism and the novella.

With few exceptions, surviving print magazines have all but abandoned in-depth writing. Instead of finding their way into print, long-form articles can be found more readily at sites like Longreads.com, Medium.com, Narrative.ly, and Byliner.com. They are one of the main reasons that marvellous apps like Instapaper and Pocket are so popular among train-riding commuters. In all likelihood, these sites also provide a much-needed outlet for the work of the under-employed graduates of all those creative non-fiction writing courses.

Long-form articles have an allure all their own. If researched thoroughly and written well, they have the ability to draw in even the most unlikely readers. They are helped in this by the scroll-like quality of text on a smartphone or tablet—you simply can’t tell the extent of your reading commitment. Before you know it, you are one-third of the way into an engrossing story and want nothing more than to reach the inevitable punchline, undaunted by a page count that remains unknowable on your digital device. This is a commitment to reading built on curiosity and the search for meaning rather than on entertainment value with an information by-product.

While listicles and long-form articles may be polar opposites, it would be a mistake to frame this discussion as a choice between them. In fact, a short piece of writing may be just as compelling and informative as the finest of long-form articles. Conversely, a long article may be badly written, poorly constructed and weakly argued. Length, by itself, conveys no virtue.

The recipe for a truly satisfying story lies, then, in the articulation of a sound argument within the appropriate context. Listicles, by definition, offer no context whatsoever. Without context, meaning is elusive and understanding impossible. If you as a writer must make a list, include it within a longer, well-researched article. In that way, you’ll serve the needs of your reader much better.