Can Listicles Rot Your Brain?

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Is a listicle clickbait, fun facts written for readers with short attention spans, or an orderly way to write information?

First of all, the word listicle is comprised of two words, list and article, and features numbered sentences.  The salient content is brief, frequently light on facts, often humorous and has an almost hypnotic quality.  There is a compulsion to read a listicle to the end but this can leave a feeling of dissatisfaction.  Yet, as time and the internet marches on, readers can’t get enough of them.  Accordingly, listicles have transcended dot points and editorial shortcuts to become the layout of choice for everyday writers and bloggers needing a quick and easy-to-read solution.

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You know what to expect by the heading of a listicle, usually important nonsense, so opinions are divided on their usefulness.  Are they ever meant to be taken seriously?  Many people think so, but that’s probably because they are writing a how-to manual.

Back when a listicle in a magazine was called a Guide or Questionnaire, and had titles like “Ten Ways To Find Out If Your Boyfriend Really Loves You”, the format was short, numbered sentences and had ten boxes to tick ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and ended with your score.  Listicles have morphed into a more sophisticated version of this ‘filler’ yet still pretend to be useful data, advice or handy hints to enhance your lifestyle.

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So, does this glossary format, this amusing fad with the cute name, continue on or can it be classed as nouveau 21st century literacy?

It doesn’t affect my reading ability (heck, I’ve re-blogged them myself) and I tend to treat a listicle as an expurgation, a beguiling and abridged version of real reading.  Just type in ‘listicle websites’ and have a look at the content.  Hardly literature at its finest even allowing for sentences stripped bare.

There are as many ‘for’ and ‘against’ stories as there are listicles.  Here are 3 of my favourite takes on listicles with apologies for not making it 10––

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(1)  Excerpt from “What Is A Listicle?”
From Richard Nordquist comes this Garrison Keillor slice of the Darker Side Of Listicles, an interview with the writer who popularised listicles (or did he?) and asks him––

Q: Do you have any idea what damage you’ve done, Jim? You’ve made people more stupid. Some of your readers now find it hard to read paragraphs that aren’t numbered.
A: How many? A lot?

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(2)  Excerpt from Mark O’Connell “Ten Paragraphs About Lists You Need in Your Life Right Now” The New Yorker, August 29, 2013
“The rise of the listicle obviously connects with the internet’s much-discussed effect on our ability (or desire) to sit still and concentrate on one thing for longer than ninety seconds. Contemporary media culture prioritises the smart take, the sound bite, the takeaway––and the list is the takeaway in its most convenient form. But even when the list, or the listicle, has nothing really to do with useful information, it still exerts an occult force on our attention––or on my attention, at any rate. (’34 Things That Will Make ’90s Girls Feel Old.’ ’19 Facts Only a Greek in the U.K. Can Understand.’ ’21 Kinds of Offal, Ranked By How Gross They Look.’) Like many of you, I am more inclined to click on links to articles that don’t reflect my interests if they happen to be in the form of countdowns. And I suspect my sheep-like behaviour has something to do with the passive construction of that last sentence. The list is an oddly submissive reading experience. You are, initially, sucked in by the promise of a neatly quantified serving of information or diversion….Once you’ve begun reading, a strange magnetism of the pointless asserts itself.”
Note how Mark O’Connell has numbered all his paragraphs.

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(3)  On the flip side, here is an excerpt from pro-listicle website “Five Reasons Listicles Are Here to Stay and Why That’s OK”
Rachel Edidin talks about ‘active progression’ and ‘lane-markers’ and her opening comment launches straight into battle “Lists are everywhere. They’re the bread and butter of sites like Cracked and BuzzFeed, and regular content or sporadic filler at dozens more. (Yes, even WIRED). From the multimedia gallery to the humble Top 10, list-format articles – listicles – are rapidly becoming the lingua franca of new-media journalism…” and later says “… listicles are just another tool in the box.”


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If you are a listicle fan, you won’t be reading this blog post.
For those who have struggled this far, here is a bonus extra:

On a scrap of paper, I’ve just written my higgledy piggledy shopping list––or is it?

1.     Bread, flour.
2.     Milk, butter, cheese.
3.     Coffee, green tea.
4.     Apples, oranges, pears.
5.     Potatoes, carrots.
6.     Basil, thyme, rosemary.
7.     Eggs, chicken.
8.     Gnocchi, penne, ravioli.
9.     Tuna, salmon.
10.   Basmati, paella.

Did you read to the end?

Gretchen Bernet-Ward