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Listicles, X-Men and Top Ten Top Tens

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Daedalus Howell/Index-Tribune

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Among the various breeds of online brain-candy, by far one of the most insidious is the so-called “Listicle.” A portmanteau of “list” and “article,” the word sounds like what would result if you tattooed your grocery list on a particular part of the male anatomy (which would probably fit right in with the adventuresome inksters at Whole Foods, actually). Milk, eggs and what else? Permit me to unzip and check my listicle.

The listicle is usually comprised of a thin lead, a series of bullet points and a vague summary. I’ve written dozens – or rather, I’ve filed dozens when I was too hung over or bored to write something that required extra line breaks to fill a column inch. This is not one of those moments, tempting as it is to enumerate the “5 Reasons I Missed My Deadline Again” (No. 3: “Deadline, I thought you said ‘bed lyin’ – so I slept in”) or “3 Ways to Have a 3 Way Without Your Marriage Counselor Trying to Get Involved – with Your Wife.”

List-inclined writers often struggle to get as many words into their work as bullet points. Consequently, their pieces read like Bonnie and Clyde’s Flathead Ford. Sure, it drives but…

This isn’t a problem for me since I usually don’t know enough about any one subject to have more than a couple of bullets about it. And I’ve got to gussy those up with copious amounts of verbiage lest my readers notice the holes in my liberal arts education. Actually, there’s just one hole, but it’s vast and black and inhaled a lot of money into oblivion some years ago.

Predictably, the listicle concept has turned in on itself resulting in listicles about listicles. I’m guilty of having once written, “Top Ten Top Ten Lists.” Last month, my colleague Rachel Edidin, at Wired’s Underwire blog, published “5 Reasons Listicles Are Here to Stay, and Why That’s OK.” Obviously, it’s okay – Listicle.co has based its business on the concept. “Listicle is a social blogging platform that allows everyone to create and share listicles,” its site explains. Great, more amateurs pushing out the professionals. Good for you, Internet.

Cracked, the humor site that spun out of its print magazine, has mastered the listicle principle in its own cockeyed way. Every ounce of its content is effectively a list: as in, “5 Random Coincidences That Invented Modern Pop Culture – No. 5: Stan Lee’s Laziness Led to the X-Men.” Apparently, Lee forewent the work necessary to create origin stories and asked instead, “What if they were just born that way?”

Perhaps that’s how listicles themselves came to be – they’re not undernourished articles reduced to a collection of skeletal subheads, but rather mutations. With superpowers. And maligned by bigots who fear them. In short, heroes here to clean up the joint, through brute force if necessary.

As Wolverine says, “I’m the best at what I do but what I do best isn’t very nice.” Yes, Listicles are kicking my ass.

But why? Because, according to Edidin, “2. Lists Give Us Additional Ways to Interact With Information … Lists let us process complicated information spatially, transforming it from cluster to linear progression.” Since much of real life is a cluster (add your own four-letter word here), let alone some newspaper columns. Perhaps listicles are the solution to all our problems, perhaps not. All I know is that my name has been on one since grammar school – usually circled and with a check next to it.

That said, I don’t doubt I’m doing it wrong. I should try to use the power of the list as a force for good – like not forgetting to buy butter at Whole Foods. Okay, sign me up for a listicle. Just one thing, how bad does it hurt?

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Daedalus Howell is on the list at DHowell.com.

  • Chris Scott

    Those are a couple realty ugly lamps !