Untangling the Web: Top 5 reasons we love lists

As 2011 draws to a close, lists are everywhere, and they’re multiplying.

Lists 311 (photo credit: Screenshot)
Lists 311
(photo credit: Screenshot)
I’m not going to beat around the bush here, I’ll just come right out with it: I love lists. Putting things in order, in either bullet or numbered form, makes me feel like I have some sort of grip on the chaos around me. The memos app on my phone has seven ongoing lists; books and television shows that people have recommended I check out, separate shopping lists for supermarket and miscellaneous, work and personal to-do lists, and a list of family landmarks in Vienna to check out when I visit next year.
“Psycho...” I hear you muttering. Maybe. But it seems that I am not alone in my love for lists. Google the phrases “Top Five” and “Top 10” and you’ll see what I mean.
This very human love of lists rears its head especially when various periods draw to a close, including at the Jewish New Year in the Hebrew press, the end of the school year, and of course, the end of the calendar year.
The “Top x of x” phenomenon is especially prevalent on the Internet; anyone who read news online in the past few days will have noticed – the lists are everywhere, and they’re multiplying. Just today, I came across YouTube’s Top 10 videos of 2011, the ADL’s list of the Top 10 issues affecting Jews in 2011, The Chicago Tribune’s 10 best concerts of 2011 and the Top 5 environment stories of 2011 (okay, that was a JPost piece).
So what is it that makes online Top Five (or Seven or Nine or whatever) lists so popular?
1. Lists make sense of a chaotic world
The world is a crazy place, and many significant events happened in the past year. It was the year of the Arab Spring, of Gilad Schalit’s release, and of a royal wedding viewed by an estimated 400 million people around the world. A seemingly inordinate amount of prominent figures died this year – from Steve Jobs and Christopher Hitchens to Osama bin Laden, Muammar Gaddafi and Kim Jong-il. The point is, we’re all suffering from information overload at least some of the time. Lists promise to order the insanity, break it down, make it neat and tidy.
In the case of news online, lists offer readers a cheat sheet, to help them catch up on everything missed during the year. For example, everyone heard of the Arab Spring, but I’m sure plenty of people wish they’d had the time to read all the details, get some background, source experts’ predictions, watch every amateur video on YouTube and have stayed glued to Al Jazeera for the entire month of February. But now it’s the end of the year, we’re just as busy as we were when it was all happening, and we start feeling like time’s running out, like this is our last chance.
A good list simplifies issues, breaks them down, states very clearly what is important and what is not. And we need that these days.
2. Lists are easy to skim
It’s now widely accepted that people read differently online than they do print media. The method used to pick out and digest information is more like skimming than reading, jumping down Web pages selecting interesting or important facts. For this reason, news websites use pictures, galleries, videos, links and intermediate headlines to grab readers’ often frazzled attention and try to pin it to the HTML.
Lists fit in perfectly with this 21st-century information processing technique. The numbers or bullets break up the text, and let readers easily pick out what interests them and what doesn’t. Each new point can be a guilt-free exit point; no need to commit to a long, potentially boring article – just come in and out as you please. And we like this because:
3. We’re lazy
Top Five lists appeal to the less intelligent, less diligent sides of our personalities. They promise quick fixes and instant gratification, and seem to offer information that would have taken a lot more reading to glean otherwise. Instead of keeping up all year with stories regarding the economy, following developing stories and looking up new buzzwords, just read the end-of-year wrap.
Also appealing to the less sparkly side of human nature is the little “ha!” we get, thinking of all the suckers who actually bothered to read all the less important stories throughout the year.
4. Lists bring us together (and tear us apart)
The great thing, and indeed the problem with the (often arbitrary) Top X list is that a lot gets left out. And so not only do the readers get information, they are stimulated to think about whether or not they agree with it.
Are these really the top whatever stories of whenever? What about x, is that really less important than the other points on this list? I can’t believe they didn’t include whatshisface! Or, of course, the other option – the head nodding that comes along with reading something that strikes a chord with the readers, when they feel that, yes indeed, this list has taken out all the rubbish, and summarized the period perfectly.
Some lists choose to rank the “winners,” others put their results in no particular order, but it arguably doesn’t make much difference. One of the main points, it would seem, is to make people think (despite their inherent laziness), and to start a conversation, debate or even argument.
This is the Internet, after all, where reader interaction and response is the name of the game.
5. Lists have a sense of progression
A numbered list gives readers a sense of progression, and the feeling that they started somewhere not too long ago and will end somewhere soon. The beginning, middle and end build a sense of excitement, drawing readers in to find out what else might be on the list.
This downward movement also parallels the end of year vibe, mimicking the human tendency to stop at milestones and look back, to review and make sense. The list format, especially a numbered one, does the work for the reader.
It’s clear to see why these lists are so popular on news sites during the silly season; they’re perfect for 21st-century news consumption. A good “Top” list tackles a given subject, breaks it down into bite-size pieces and requires minimum reader effort. It lends itself to links to old stories, accompanying photos and videos and other graphic elements, and still somehow holds onto editorial value and a high level of reader enjoyment.
So before you write me off as a loser with my indexed list of lists, admit it – you like a good list too.
Happy New Year, all!
The writer is The Jerusalem Post's Internet desk manager