In defence of lists

Image: Max Woolf

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a romantic tide of content authenticity developing across web culture. You can find it in confessional commentaries that deal with our investments in life and creative work (Merlin Mann’s Cranking being a common touchstone), in podcasts that celebrate doing what you love, and on the stages of design conferences where charismatic storytelling has become paramount.

I’m generally a fan of this “get excited and make stuff” scene, but we need to approach its romanticism with a critical eye, especially when it tends to enshrine a particular model of storytelling, of creativity, and of “good content” — one that privileges confessional narratives, emotional catharsis and an authentic personal voice.

A common trait of this new web romanticism has been to dismiss the “listicle” (a list-based article, like “30 Ways Your Smartphone Isn’t As Cool As You Think”) as a form of inauthentic, SEO-driven linkbait which, along with paginated articles that chase page-impressions, tend to crowd out a more unitary reading experience. Lists are inauthentic. They have no voice. They lack emotional gravity. They have no personality. They’re glommed together. They have obvious seams. They don’t contribute to a narrative. They’re examples of bad writing.

A lot of this criticism can be true, but there’s an important slippage happening here. What this romanticism rallies around is not “good writing” as such, but something much more like verbal charisma, which is not specific to writing at all. In fact, it is the nonlinear list form itself that is more specific to writing. As Walter Ong reminds us in Orality and Literacy, writing and list making are technologically intertwined (and yes, writing itself is an “unnatural” technology):

Orality knows no lists or charts or figures. Goody (1977) has examined in detail the poetic significance of tables and lists, of which the calendar is one example. Writing makes such apparatus possible. Indeed, writing was in a sense invented largely to make something like lists: by far most of the earliest writing we know, that in the cuneiform script of the Sumerians beginning around 3500 BC, is account-keeping. (Ong 2013:93)

Not all lists are going to be interesting, but we need to be open to the possibility that you don’t have to write a confessional, cathartic inspiration piece to be considered compelling. In fact, the assumption that this should be the default setting for “successful content” on the web saddens me, and perhaps betrays the corrosive influence of TED culture, in which charisma and a certain type of narrative outweighs the hard work of opening critical questions and making vital connections. Connections that might be better made with the constellative properties of lists, perhaps.


(Originally posted to my blog in March 2014.)