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?
We need news organizations to help our curiosity by signaling how their stories fit into the larger themes on which a sincere capacity for interest depends. To grow interested in any piece of information, we need somewhere to “put” it, which means some way of connecting it to an issue we already know how to care about. A section of the human brain might be pictured as a library in which information is shelved under certain fundamental categories. Most of what we hear about day to day easily signals where in the stacks it should go and gets immediately and unconsciously filed: News of an affair is put on the heavily burdened shelf dedicated to How Relationships Work, a story of the sudden sacking of a CEO slots into our evolving understanding of Work & Status.
But the stranger or the smaller stories become, the harder the shelving process grows. What we colloquially call “feeling bored” is just the mind, acting out of a self-preserving reflex, ejecting information it has despaired of knowing where to place.
Alain de Botton, The Future of News, The Week.
The piece is an excerpt from his new book The News: A User’s Manual, which we’re currently reading and will have thoughts to tumble about soon. In the meantime, it’s an important conversation to have. Here’s a take on some key points from a review in The Guardian:
These are all worthy areas, to be sure. They are what intelligent, concerned citizens ought to want to know about the world that surrounds them. Perhaps, two centuries ago, the general populace could manage without The News most of the time. But now it’s omnipresent, inescapable and, on this thesis, stuck in too many arcane ruts, pandering to fear and pessimism, relishing disappointment.
Yet you can’t make the whole journey merely by playing the dissatisfied consumer.
[…] News starts with you, your family, your interests, your street. It expands via TV, captured by the people and lives you see on screen. (It was more interested in foreign coverage when it seemed the cold war could destroy us all at the push of a button). It is a box of fragments you try to assemble for yourself, rather than a finished jigsaw. Which means that it can’t be pinned down in a handy user’s guide. But at least it’s worth thinking about constantly, fine, frisky, philosophical minds applied. For the construct is you.
To Alyssa Royse, a sex and relationships blogger, for saying that she hated The Dark Knight: “you are clearly retarded, i hope someone shoots then rapes you.” To Kathy Sierra, a technology writer, for blogging about software, coding, and design: “i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob.” To Lindy West, a writer at the women’s website Jezebel, for critiquing a comedian’s rape joke: “I just want to rape her with a traffic cone.” To Rebecca Watson, an atheist commentator, for blogging about sexism in the skeptic community: “If I lived in Boston I’d put a bullet in your brain.” To Catherine Mayer, a journalist at Time magazine, for no particular reason: “A BOMB HAS BEEN PLACED OUTSIDE YOUR HOME. IT WILL GO OFF AT EXACTLY 10:47 PM ON A TIMER AND TRIGGER DESTROYING EVERYTHING.”
Amanda Hess, Pacific Standard. Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet.
Find time. Read this:
But no matter how hard we attempt to ignore it, this type of gendered harassment — and the sheer volume of it — has severe implications for women’s status on the Internet. Threats of rape, death, and stalking can overpower our emotional bandwidth, take up our time, and cost us money through legal fees, online protection services, and missed wages. I’ve spent countless hours over the past four years logging the online activity of one particularly committed cyberstalker, just in case. And as the Internet becomes increasingly central to the human experience, the ability of women to live and work freely online will be shaped, and too often limited, by the technology companies that host these threats, the constellation of local and federal law enforcement officers who investigate them, and the popular commentators who dismiss them—all arenas that remain dominated by men, many of whom have little personal understanding of what women face online every day.
Take, for example, the case of Jessica Valenti, founder of Feministing:
When rape and death threats first started pouring into her inbox, she vacated her apartment for a week, changed her bank accounts, and got a new cell number. When the next wave of threats came, she got in touch with law enforcement officials, who warned her that though the men emailing her were unlikely to follow through on their threats, the level of vitriol indicated that she should be vigilant for a far less identifiable threat: silent “hunters” who lurk behind the tweeting “hollerers.” The FBI advised Valenti to leave her home until the threats blew over, to never walk outside of her apartment alone, and to keep aware of any cars or men who might show up repeatedly outside her door. “It was totally impossible advice,” she says. “You have to be paranoid about everything. You can’t just not be in a public place.”
Along with the psychological, emotional and professional toll such trolling takes, Hess’ article also explores the role technology platforms (could) play in alleviating abuse, law enforcement issues around cyberstalking, the sociology of online and offline spaces and much much more.