How B.J. Novak and Star Wars pick-up lines created a platform dedicated to lists

Li.st makes the art of ‘listing’ even easier

Li.st co-founders Dev Flaherty and B.J. Novak at Disrupt NY 2016. Photo credit: TechCrunch

About six months ago, I heard that B.J. Novak (who maybe you know as Ryan from The Office) launched a social media application called The List App. I initially wrote it off as a celebrity stunt.

But then a few weeks later, I read a story from Benjamin Mullen at Poynter about how an application was helping news organizations to “reclaim the listicle.” The app, which at the time was known as The List App, is now referred to as Li.st.

For media companies and brands alike, the platform goes deeper on news and eccentric curiosities. Take, for instance, NPR which uses Li.st to help reshape news stories, like: Apple vs. FBI: 5 Questions, Answered. Or, look at how The New York Times uses it to drive engagement. A list on some of the most hated words in the English language, resulted in a running comment thread of hated words, reaching almost 300 comments.

I’ve been an active user of Li.st, mainly because I love to cook. I use it to organize my thoughts for recipes or favorite restaurants, and it’s usually a way to get input from other food-obsessed followers.

The art of “listing” is really nothing new. My good friend and colleague Jim Walsh says it really only takes a few underlying rules to write a good list.

In my experience, a good list is to-the-point, taps into an emotion, and offers an essential truth.

And, it seems a lot of others have taken to a list-based approach to writing. Right now, the Li.st community is growing, says co-founder Dev Flaherty. Earlier this month, at TechCrunch Disrupt NY, he announced some big news: mainly that the platform is expanding to both the web and the Android market.

To learn more about how Li.st has grown and where it’s headed next, I spoke with Flaherty by phone.


Q: What has community growth been like for The List App?

Dev Flaherty: Well, we started out with an agnostic template: the structure of a list. It’s almost human nature to make lists. We make them all the time. But with The List App, we kind of let people decide what to do. People took to the app in ways that they could express themselves. So, we didn’t have any idea for what kind of lists would actually develop. You know, a list can be practical — something like the five restaurants you need to check out in Paris — or it can be super silly — like GIFs of my cat. When we started, we really didn’t know what would happen and that was really exciting. What we’ve seen in the past six months, or at least the overarching theme, has been self-expression. We see this as a very strong, vibrant, and personal way to connect with a community, who also deeply cares and is engaged within the community.

Q: Why is list writing so appealing? What makes for a good list?

Flaherty: There’s something very powerful about removing the requirements of syntax. You don’t have to think about how you want to frame your thoughts. Instead, you can just express them and get the ideas out there. If I said to you: ‘Tell me about your day in two paragraphs’ vs. ‘Write a list of things that happened in your day,’ the first would be pretty tricky. You would have to organize your thoughts, figure out how you wanted to order them and where you would insert your breaks or pauses. A list is just innately simpler. It’s almost a stream of conscious[ness].

But, a good list does involve some self-expression and thinking. It’s an art form in many respects. In our community, the currency is being truthful and authentic. In a lot of other platforms and social media, people present a false impression of their life or personal experience. But here, the social currency is authenticity. The lists that trend the highest are the ones that are personal, powerful, and revealing.

Q: Who’s in the Li.st community right now? What kinds of people use it and have brands started using it?

Flaherty: We have about 150,000 users and the vast majority of them are folks that are early-adopters of social media. They’re into new platforms, and many of our users happen to be very much into writing, whether that’s the aspiring or professional writers. The vast majority are just average people expressing themselves.

We also have a group that we onboarded early, people who are well-known or media brands, like The New York Times, Anthony Bourdain, or Lena Dunham. These folks helped us get started. But, the force of the community has really helped carry it through to new users. It’s a digital connection made on a unique platform. And you know what, I imagine that brands will begin to use this and gravitate towards it. But right now, very few brands have signed on. I imagine that they will come at some point, but we’re not pursuing them actively. We are more concerned with growing our users as a whole.

Q: What’s ahead for you?

Flaherty: [This] week we are announcing at TechCrunch a new web product. And it’s because we’ve had more than 250,000 lists published from tiny, itty-bitty, iPhone keyboards. We want to expand list writing to a wider group. I think that web is going to be a huge moment. So we’re really working on building out the web product. The Android launch also opens us to an even wider user base.

Q: Finally, what’s it like working with B.J. Novak?

Flaherty: It’s really cool. We met and very quickly crystallized this idea, even though we both didn’t totally understand it. It was just the idea of letting people express their ideas through lists. B.J. is great at thinking through our problems and prioritizing our growth every quarter and in the years ahead. He’s also brought together a great group of friends, both known and unknown. That’s lead to a really interesting and vibrant community. By the time we went live, there was such a strong, fun data community in place, so it sort of set the tone from day one.

Q: Okay, actually one more question: What was the last list that you liked?

Flaherty: The last list that I liked was from one of our favorite users, who is based in France. She made a hilarious open list. We have these open lists where the entire community can contribute their ideas. She created an open list that was about Star Wars pick-up lines. And, it was released on May the 4th, so of course it was kind of perfect.


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