Yesterday I gave a talk at my grad school alma mater—the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania—about what journalists and scholars can teach each other. Interestingly enough, the academics in attendance all nodded their heads when I went on a little rant about how awful most academic writing is, and made the case that just because it has always been that way it doesn't have to continue to be that way. (Though when I quoted Elaine Benes—"People love interesting writing!"—the students looked at me blankly, obviously having no idea whom I was referring to. Kids today.) The abysmal quality of academic prose is something that every grad student complains about and every professor acknowledges, but nobody seems to have the gumption to do anything about.
That's a topic I'll return to later, but in discussing the current state of the media, I described how the most-read piece on The American Prospect's web site in 2012 was "My So-Called Ex-Gay Life," Gabriel Arana's extraordinary story about the ex-gay movement and his own youthful experience with conversion therapy. The article was not only well-reported and beautifully written, but genuinely newsworthy; it included an interview with Dr. Robert Spitzer, one of the prime movers in the propagation of conversion therapy, in which Spitzer essentially recanted his entire career and apologized. That was our top article of the year, and deservedly so. And what was the second most-read article of the year? "Ten Arguments Gun Advocates Make, and Why They're Wrong," a listicle I wrote on the day of the Newtown shooting. I don't know exactly how long Gabe took to report and write his piece, but I imagine it was weeks. I splurted out that listicle in about an hour and a half.
So what's the lesson here? Lists are magic. Buzzfeed has built its spectacular success on that principle (just look), there are other web sites who have similar success, (see, for example, Cracked, which on the web is something very different and more successful than its print roots as a Mad magazine rip-off), and it's something every magazine and website editor knows. The next time you're at a newsstand, look at the magazine covers, and see how many are using lists to grab your attention. "9 Moves That'll Drive Him Wild." "8 Exercises to Burn Fat And Rip Those Abs." "12 Strategies For Achieving Financial Security." "14 Celebrity Bikini Nightmares." But the question is, why?
Does anyone know? I told the Annenberg students that if any of them were looking for a dissertation topic, this would be a great one. They laughed, but I was serious. What is it about lists that we find so irresistible? As far as I can tell, no one has tried to figure it out (though it's possible there are psychologists who have solved the mystery, and I just haven't seen their work). Maybe it has to do with the promise of something both finite and complete, distilling the world down to something you can manage and then be done with. The world is full of photos of cute corgis, but these 37 are the cutest, and once you've seen them not only will your day be a little sweeter but you need search no more for cute corgi photos. It could also be the attraction of something easy to read—because it's broken into small pieces, you know it won't require too much work to read, you'll be able to skim it easily, and if you want to read part of it and then stop, you'll be able to.
But those explanations seem a little too rational. Lists grab us in a visceral way, making us click on things whose topics we don't even otherwise care about. There's nothing rational about it. If anybody has any ideas about why they work so well, I'd love to hear.