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List articles are not a way to deliver news

Associate Commentary Editor

Published: Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Updated: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 22:02

If you had told journalists and media experts five years ago that an article titled “17 Pornhub Comments as Inspirational Quotes” could garner 60,000 page views in two hours, they probably wouldn’t have believed you. Nonetheless, list articles have become immensely and inescapably popular.

You’ve probably already read a few of these articles or at least been exposed to their headlines today. Their popularity is what has made Buzzfeed the leading cause of procrastination among college students and pessimism about media literacy among journalism professors. They’re so pervasive that a quick google search of the world “listicles” (as they’re called in my journalism classes and probably nowhere else) turned up an articled titled “Top nine things you need to know about listicles”, from the Guardian.

Why are list articles so addictive? As someone who enjoys reading, list articles make me uncomfortable. While they may be great for enumerating the surprising foods that contain more sugar than a Snickers bar, there seems to be something wrong with delivering news and other important information in such a simple format. List articles have very little nuance and lose the advantages that narrative and fuller context can provide. They can feel mind-numbing and addictive, even to someone who tries to avoid them. I could spend hours reading list articles and feel like I haven’t learned a thing.

Many people are quick to point these things out. List articles are seen as a sign of our generation’s minute attention spans, taste for the inane and desire for instant gratification.

We live in a world where an article titled “33 Reasons Miley Cyrus Was Actually The Best Thing To Happen to 2013” can get almost a million page views. There’s certainly some cause for concern there, but I don’t think the issue here is smartphones, attention spans or shallow Millennials. Lists appeal to both the way our brains work and the way we were taught to read.

A New Yorker article from December delved into the ways our brains process lists and what makes them so appealing. The headlines are engaging and offer a measurable time commitment and clear outcome from reading the article, two things that make it much more appealing to click on. The lists themselves feed into our brains’ tendency to categorize things, and they require little of the “mental heavy lifting” of traditional writing.

I think the popularity of lists, particularly among our age group, goes beyond the way our brains work to the way we were taught to read and write. In grade school, we were taught to write expository essays with rigid structure and pick small, specifics details out of textbooks and novels. The dreaded five-paragraph essay and a focus on “reading for information” naturally led students to seek out and package information as clearly and plainly as possible.

All those expository essays were organized in a way similar to list articles: attention grabbing first line, an introductory paragraph that tells the reader what to expect, three body paragraphs defending the statement in your introduction and a conclusion to tie it all up. There’s supposedly more depth in an essay of this kind than a in a list article, but the basic structure is the same- the reader knows what they’re getting before the click on the article, and the information is easy to digest and skim through if necessary.

After years of five paragraph essays, processing information that had been organized this way became second nature to us.  We were taught to read in a similar way-to answer the question at the bottom of the page. In middle and high school, I wrote countless summaries of works of fiction and read long articles in order to answer a few specific questions and “sum it up” or give the “main idea” in a few sentences. We were taught to read in a way that deemphasizes the importance of a piece of writing as a whole. After learning to approach writing in this way, it’s no wonder we strip any extraneous details we can from what we read.

Does this mean that you can blame your 4th grade teacher for your unfinished term paper and extensive knowledge of Beyonce’s stage outfits? Probably not, but it does mean we have to look at the way we teach literacy and what we expect of students. If adults don’t like list articles, I think they make a compelling case for more creative writing, fiction and reading for enjoyment.

Most of the media we consume today is meant to be understood quickly, with a couple of easy takeaways. In today’s digital climate, we will have to teach children how to read for something other than immediate information.

 

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