With the number of influential lists throughout history — from the 10 Commandments to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses to Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points and David Letterman’s Top 10 List — one would think there must be a secret power behind them. Lists are a powerful way to summarize a wealth of information in a memorable and useful format. Shopping lists, airport flight schedule boards, and restaurant menus simplify our daily lives and aid us in accomplishing our goals. But do lists have a dark side?
Over the past few years a new form of list has come into being. The ‘listicle’ is a combination of a “list” and an “article” and appears nearly everywhere online. The listicle does have certain strengths that have helped lead to its popularity. For example, if I’m shopping for a new camera it’s helpful to read a listicle about what to look for or consider in making my purchase decision. However, listicles suffer from one major flaw: OVERKILL. It’s own overuse (and misuse) has been the nail in its coffin.
Perhaps because listicles are easier and quicker to write than traditional articles, listicles are encouraged by blog topic generators. This is perhaps the leading cause of the overkill of listicles. Before jumping off the bandwagon, though, here’s a list of 17 reasons listicles are dead, compiled from like-minded writers with my own commentary added:
- Sometimes Just Ads in Disguise — Perhaps the worst result of overkill, more and more readers will see the intention behind your web content and will put up their defenses.
- They Oversimplify — Unless it’s a How-To post about using some kind of tool, listicles generally don’t reflect reality. Few things in life can be summed up neatly into a brief list.
- They’re a Waste of Time — “They waste the time of the maker of the listicle, the editor of the home of the listicle, and all the readers of the listicle.” — Of course, this depends on content, but is sadly too true.
- They’re Never as Long (or Short) as They Should Be — Make sure you’re content is long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to be readable. If your content becomes too long to be readable, consider breaking it up into multiple articles or using a different format.
- Formulaic — If your content is seen as canned in a factory, rather than alive and fresh, then it will lack engaging power.
- ‘Listicles’ is a Really Stupid Name that Sounds Like Some Sort of Gland Deformity — While this is true, most readers don’t know the format name of what they are reading, but as this changes expect an unpleasant reaction to your content.
- There are Listicles for Things that Never Need to Be Aggregated — Your content might be amazing and helpful, but if it’s presented in a format associated with useless information, then you’re fighting an unnecessary uphill battle.
- Each Point in a Listicle is Not Long Enough to Actually Convey Anything Meaningful — Make sure your content is worth your reader’s time. If your chosen format prevents useful content, consider a change.
- Listicles do not have any sort of overarching flow or structure — Don’t forget that people engage with stories, especially when they can relate to the main character. Listicles are generally lifeless conveyors of information. Try telling a story with your listicle or, better yet, try telling a story without using a listicle!
- Listicles Take Other Websites’ Content and Shamelessly Plagiarize it Without Citation — Thanks for the reminder, 37andO.com! Be sure to respect the intellectual property of others.
- It’s Lazy — “The kind of content that stands out and builds a brand doesn’t start with ‘Which formulaic headline will we barf out today’, but ‘How can we do things DIFFERENTLY than everyone else who has taken on this topic?’” — Innovation is a game of “I’m a Non-Conformist And So Am I.” Whether you’re an early adopter or a laggard, maintain your personality and you’ll naturally do things differently than anyone else, and you’ll make a positive contribution to society.
- It Doesn’t Acknowledge the Humanity of its Readers — “[Your] audience is not a slithering, uniform conglomerate. They’re a living, breathing, unique group (or even groups within a group) of people. No matter what you create, you’re creating it for them.” — Along with maintaining your own personality, acknowledge the personalities of your readers.
- Doesn’t Concede Points to the Other Guy — “I’ve always admired any writer who can wrap up his own case and then say, ‘On the other hand…’ Even if the concession is a token one, it helps establish him or her as a reasonable person and serves to maintain a decorous tone. You can’t do that in a listicle, since it would mean giving it an arch title like ‘Ten Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Worry About Catching Ebola (And One Reason Why You Should!).’” — Of course, one of the complaints of our time is that we are all close-minded and unwilling to consider another person’s point of view. Perhaps the popularity of listicles is a reflection of our splintering society.
- The Titles All Sound the Same — “If you don’t believe me, just Google the words Top + 10 + Things + Women. You’ll feel as though you’re in a huge field of dandelions.” — I tried it and it’s true. Most of the posts are about relationships and dating.
- Literary Lobotomy — “It seems to me that the entire concept of the listicle is based upon the presumption that we cannot or will not think for ourselves, that making choices based on parameters specific to you and you alone is…too hard? Takes too much time? Involves too many brain waves? I just don’t understand the appeal or the worth of applying specific recommendations to laughably subjective topics.” — If you’re really trying to help your readers, then leave enough room for personal application. Empowerment is very engaging.
- News Snacking — “So in essence, the media has rushed to trade out the big, juicy steak of real story, with its meaty, filling textures and flavors and nuance of reporting and writing and structure and narrative, for the crappy, ersatz information equivalent of a bag of Cheezy Poofs.” — Listicles tend to skim the surface of their subjects and offer as much substance as a Table of Contents, leaving its readers with the mirage of having become informed. While this might result in high traffic, without further engagement your readers will stick around as long as a migrating bird heading south for winter. The better your content, the better your leads, and the more your sales team will love you.
- Overkill — So here we are again at the beginning. If the 16 previous reasons haven’t convinced you that listicles are dead, they should be a huge warning flag to proceed with caution. Trends change quickly, but if you can anticipate them and, more importantly, stay attuned to your audience, you’ll be able to adapt and succeed.