by Riley Redgate
The listicle: it's an article, but also a list. No, that's not a portmanteau of "list" and "testicle," though that also sort of works, in a way.
Thanks to BuzzFeed taking over the world, you probably see a listicle or two popping up in your Facebook feed or on Twitter daily. This very blog post is a listicle! Help, I've been converted to the Dark Side, ha ha. No, seriously. Help.
I've seen plenty of people complaining about listicles being the downfall of civilized society or the end of Real Readership. I don't particularly agree, but that's fine. One can think listicles are the end-all-be-all of perfect journalism or that they are some terrible plague on society; everyone's opinion is pretty much valid. But I'm more interested in why and how they became such a phenomenon so quickly, because that is an undeniable truth. This is a type of writing that's catchier than chicken pox, and wherever writing trends pop up, it's always good to examine them closely.
As I see it, here's why these articles have proven themselves to have the sticking power of particularly determined leeches:
1) The ever-clickable titles.
The portal into the listicle inevitably has a cutesy but wait, there's more! tone to it. I just know there's some person out there behind a keyboard whose actual job is titling listicles. They're probably cackling gleefully, cracking their knuckles, and making unfathomable amounts of money off it all. These titles have a great and terrible power. 12 Quirky and Adorable Times Jennifer Lawrence Enraptured the General Viewing Public? I like being enraptured! Show me more! 9 Facts You Won't Believe Are True? Is that a challenge? That sounds like a challenge. I'd better click it, just to show them I can believe those facts are true. That'll show them.
More page views equals more success. Clickable titles are the first step, then, to taking over the world. These titles sell a product with efficiency and clarity -- you know exactly what you're getting. Brevity is the soul of wit. It is also apparently the soul of capitalism.
2) The convenient organization.
Listicles are essentially pre-chewed food. Everything is easily digestible, lined up in order so that the quickly scanning eye can hop from point to point with maximum efficiency. It's also convenient for the author, because it's essentially just an article taken to the chopping block: you take the topic sentence of the paragraph, turn it into a sentence fragment, put a number before it, and voila. There's an emphasis here on comprehensibility, rather than style. It's hyper-commercial, and organized to be so.
3) Their unthreatening nature.
Honestly, listicles seem to betray how scared the internet has become when it comes to reading anything long. This format is a great way to make articles look low-calorie. It's not some tremendous block of text, the listicle cries. You're still on the internet, the land of the miniature attention span! This is a quick article!
This is funny to me, because (as mentioned in point #2) I feel that many plain ol' articles could be easily converted into list-form, and conversely, many listicles could be transformed into plain ol' articles without too much hard work. Not that writing lists and writing articles aren't different arts, but wow, the magic effect of white space. How much more likely is someone to read an article titled 30 Things You Loved About the 90s, which is simply 30 numbered evenly spaced paragraphs about the 90s, versus an article titled What You Loved About the 90s, a 30-paragraph-long essay?
4) The ranking system.
Something that's uniquely wonderful about the list format is that it presents the opportunity for you to rank the importance of your points without having to state explicitly, This is the important part, for these reasons. Especially if the list is reverse-numbered (5, 4, 3, 2, 1), the reader can expect that #1 on the list will be something special. This also helps retain readers who otherwise may have stopped reading before the end. They will feel some terrible tug in their chest that urges them to finish the listicle, to see it through to the bitter end, no matter their current feelings toward it, no matter how much they might want to quit. They will want to be impressed. They will be stubborn. I am not at all speaking from experience.
What I'm saying here is that the setup creates unresolved tension. If you see #5 at the top, you'll naturally want to read down to #1.
Cracked.com has been doing these for ages. (Though there's a world of difference between BuzzFeed listicles and Cracked listicles.) The list format lends itself to joke format. Each number gets a setup and a punchline, and then you move on. In a lot of cases, the last number on the list is also a punchline. The audience expects this, in a way, which means it's all the more satisfying when their expectations are met.
6) The internet has a long memory.
The internet is the place that still can't let go of videos like They're Taking the Hobbits to Isengard and the trololo song. I doubt it'll let go of this oddly specific, highly successful writing format that's created a million viral articles. The internet has dug its little hands into the listicle, and the internet loves the listicle, so the listicle, BasedGod decrees, is here to stay.
So little time and effort involved, and so many laughs. Here's a gif of a cat. Moving pictures. We're basically in Harry Potter now. This is the final stage of human evolution. This is it. We've reached the top.
Am I against listicles? Not really. I think they're hilarious, and expeditious. And frankly, at least people are still reading articles at all. It's 2014. Weren't we supposed to be uploading information to our brains by now?
Riley Redgate, enthusiast of all things YA, is a bookstore-and-Starbucks-dweller from North Carolina attending college in Ohio. She is represented by Caryn Wiseman of Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Sporadically and with occasional weirdness, she blogs here and speaks with considerably more brevity here.