In Defense of the Listicle

DAVIS: How often do you see people complain about the listicle as something that’s dumbing us all down? “21 cute puppies you have to see now!” “14 reasons Socrates was the coolest philosopher ever,” “17 hacks to make cooking easier.”

The listicle is an internet-born, BuzzFeed popularized format that is now ubiquitous and basically distills everything into 15 points that you need to read.

But what I’m wondering right now is why the listicle rocketed into popularity. And it seems like most of the people talking about this feel that it’s due how we interact with the internet, and how content works in that space.

But before we get into all of that, let’s talk a little bit about writing on the internet in general, then we’ll get back to form.

STEPHANIE: “My name is Stephanie Leary. I’m a freelance web designer and I used to work on campus in about five different offices over ten years and the last was at the Writing Center.”

DAVIS: Stephanie’s the author of a book called “Content Strategies for Wordpress.” She told me that there are basically two big ways the internet affects our writing: the way search engines rank pages, and the ways people expect to interact with content online.

STEPHANIE: “The words that we choose are hugely important and you have to consider that people are coming to you for a reason, they have a purpose, they want to achieve something by reading the content that you’ve written, and the phrase that they are looking for has to be the phrase that you’ve written—it has to match.”

DAVIS: When we go to the internet for information, we normally search a term we think applies. If the copy on your website doesn’t have that term, it’s not going to come up.

STEPHANIE: “The airline industry ran into this when they started trying to advertise their flights. They would put out all this marketing material related to ‘low fares’ because that’s the term that’s used in the industry and then they wondered why they weren’t getting a lot of traction on searching engines on that. Well somebody when out and looked at Google’s open, public search statistics and found that the phrase people used when they’re trying to book a flight was ‘cheap flights.’”

DAVIS: So if you include in your article the terms that people are looking for, they’re more likely to land on your page to see the answers. We’re used to thinking about audience when we write (also, cool fact, every episode of Write Right so far comes back around to that), but we’re not used to thinking about it so explicitly, to where your diction can literally cause someone to know if your piece exists or not. Normally we write what we think is best and then wait for our audience to come to us. However, the web offers a great place to reach out and meet your audience where they are, and where they are is on a search engine. When search engines scan the web to find content, they’re not only looking at your article itself but the headings, image captions, links, and really whatever other text you include. The closer your words are to popular search terms, the more people that see it. Your content and your audience meet in a space where a common language is shared.

Writing content in this way is known as search engine optimization, or SEO, and it’s a pretty big field now. There are people whose jobs are only to work on SEO, and often they’re looking at that public data Stephanie mentioned. So at least for words on the page that’s one way that the internet affects the writing we bring to it, but if we look back at the listicle, SEO doesn’t really explain how the internet affects form. So, how does the internet affect form? Well that’s where some science comes in.

STEPHANIE: “Ten-fifteen years ago someone started doing heat-map tracking of where people’s attention is actually focused as they read a screen and they discovered a very natural “F” pattern that most people fall into: they track across the top of the screen first and then start skimming down the left side looking for subheadings or images or captions or anything that would catch their attention and let them know whether this article that they’re looking at is worth going all the way through.”

“Breaking up articles into small chunks with the subheadings is not only good for getting over that initial intimidation factor of somebody coming to your page and just getting hit with a wall of text but caters to that F pattern.”

DAVIS: Let’s go back to the late 90’s/early 2000’s for a second. Everyone is getting online, starting blogs, they’re wearing their Juicy Track Suits, and web writers realize–they need a way to stand out, to convince these swaths of people getting online to read their writing, and not someone else’s. They look for ways to make their pages look cool–a large part of getting visitors. And along with that comes the realization that people like to read what is pleasing to the eye. They realize that blocks and blocks of text just plain suck. Ask any designer-—white space is important! It allows you some space to, well, breathe, in a way. Eventually that search for a pleasant reading experience leads everyone right into that “F” pattern, and someone realizes where they’ve seen this before: the list. And BAM! The listicle explodes throughout the internet.

Not only is the “F” pattern pleasing on the eye to read, but it’s just plain faster. For example, during breaking news events, newspapers will often have a bulleted “what we know” section on their site. It’s a great way to get the facts out quickly. And that’s what you’re looking for when it comes to the web: speed and clarity.

There’s a book called Killer Web Content wherein its author Gerry McGovern definitely stresses that idea.

GERRY: “I think web writing is much simpler and bare bones and to the point, you know, people read on the web in a much more scan-reading or brutal or fast or rapid and so the essence of web writing is really brutally getting to the point, most of the time really.”

DAVIS: Gerry is all for thinking about what your audience is trying to do with the words you’ve published. That bit Stephanie said about cheap flights? It’s an example from his book.

GERRY: “Writers, unfortunately, are often more interested in their writing than in their communication. There’s a stripping away needed in web writing that a lot of traditional writers don’t like doing. Sometimes all you need is a link–a good link–you don’t need anything else. But you know, writers, they just want to write more than people want to read.”

DAVIS: In other words: write for what your audience needs and how they need it. For example, if the listicle is the most elegant way to present an idea at the moment, use it! Otherwise, why come to your site, why read your words? Making your content and writing efficient, visually pleasing, and easy to understand gives you an edge on all of the other content out there. Gerry says he sees writers spend way too much time on the words, and not enough on the efficiency of the information.

“You know and often times they don’t get to the point–they don’t tell you anything useful. It’s just bland bland blah blah blah–you know, the web is the death of blah blah blah, most people just won’t give you time.”

“If you’re checking up security and privacy you don’t want to read ‘we care about your privacy’ you want to know how do you care about my privacy you know ‘we never do this, we never sell your data onto marketers,’ you know but you don’t want to read ‘we care about your privacy’”

DAVIS: But to answer the original question: why did the listicle become so popular? Well it seems like the perfect form for speed and readability. You can answer the questions that people have in the way that they’re going to understand those answers. And that’s not to say it’s the perfect form for every goal—there’s certainly a lot out there that just can’t be distilled down as efficiently as the 15 reasons dogs are better than people.

But what we learn from the listicle is this: web writing has got to be efficient, it’s got to grab people’s attention, and communicate clearly. Readers come to your content with a purpose–and it’s your job to give them their answers quickly so they can be on their way. So in addition to the form your writing takes–like the listicle–think about your word choice, is it what people are looking for? And think about the way you present ideas, does your writing let people know the answer to their question clearly? Get those two right, and you’re on your way.