A few years ago, someone realized that the internet and lists go together like milk and Oreos. The list is an amazing medium for transmitting text in the harried digital environment of the web. It’s small chunks (easy to understandvisually and quick to read) that are prioritized in order of importance to the piece’s central premise (“Best Tacos in [city name],” “10 Worst Fashion Mistakes in Oscars History,” etc.).
First off, they’re SEO gold because people love to search for superlatives (why wouldn’t a user want to cut through the crap, right?). Second, in a world where the human attention span is shorter than a goldfish’s, lists are easily digestible on desktop or mobile. Third, they are cheaper to produce than many other forms of original content. It’s a form of aggregation. So, for all of those reasons and a few more, they became the darling of any and every media site whose mission didn’t expressly forbid that sort of content. If you subscribe to Travel + Leisure’s email, they will deliver an endless stream of travel “lists,” to name just one convert. But when a form becomes so popular, so buzzworthy, it also demands to be recontextualized — it needs a new name. And so, it wasn’t good enough to call these lists anymore because there was a notion that this new thing, which wasn’t actually new, should be more than that. It should be a listicle. But the new terms was so anatomical (clavicle, testicle, etc.), that some people don’t feel comfortable saying it out loud. Others embraced it as a natural synthesis of list and article.
And like all wildly popular trends in digital media, the Puritanical print-first crowd grumbled that this new form was cheap and undermining real readers. Enough criticism mounted that NYT’s Upshot took to defending the listicle.
David Leonhart succinctly writes:
“But lists aren’t inherently silly. When I wrote last week about one of the lessons we’ve learned during our first year at The Upshot — that big blocks of text aren’t the only good way to deliver information — I focused on multimedia journalism. Such journalism is clearly a huge part of what we do here: maps, interactive charts, calculators, photo essays and the like. We use those forms much more often than we use lists, and we’ll continue to do so in our second year.
At same time, I think it’s worth acknowledging the advantages of lists as another important tool in journalism. This week brought a good example: Aaron Carroll’s “simple rules for healthy eating.” It attracted a big audience, and it did so largely organically, through social media. It was smart and, yes, nuanced. People read it, found it useful and shared it with others.
To put it bluntly, it was a better, more useful piece than it would have been as a 1,000-word essay or news article. Human beings often think in terms of lists, and there is nothing wrong with that.”
He’s really summing up a crucial struggle in the transition from traditional broadcast and print media to one of converging, omni-channel digital message distribution. Print could be inefficient because media options were limited and time was perceived entirely differently by the average person. Therefore, the ideal became longer “think pieces” as the Platonic ideal of Journalism with a capital J. Digital media no longer has that luxury. It’s about performance. There are traffic quotas and analytics, and more potential sources of information competing for users’ attention.
In the days of OG broadcast media (television, radio, print), people had to accept the forms they were given because of the relatively limited media landscape. There were a handful of newspapers and a couple of networks. Demand was greater than supply, and people took what they were given because they had nowhere else to turn.
That was how things worked before the internet exploded those models and put a greater premium on dialogue, empowering the user as near-equal of the broadcaster (for better or worse). Direct channels of communication (social media, text voting, etc.) were opened online, and users were given the power to distribute the content with which they identified. And then there’s exponential growth in the number of channels (media channels, not just television) through which information/entertainment is distributed. That change in the power dynamic catalyzes a massive shift from a traditional broadcast media model (subjugating consumer) to today’s engagement-based multi-channel media strategy (Vice and consumer lifestyle distribution). But I digress…
The point is that it’s time to start judging content by its efficacy, not its form. A two-minute video can deliver as much information as a 1,200 word article, and the video can be consumed in a fraction of the time of the article. Content can’t be judged by old standards of form anymore. It has to be optimized for a channel and an audience. Longform still has its place, but the expectation that longform is the highest good when it comes to delivering information is long-since dead and buried.
The funny twist is this tidbit from Nieman Lab about the role of viral information and content aggregation in 19th century newspapers. What it finds is that practices of aggregation that have played a huge role in the content shock era of online media (and marketing) growth, were also crucial to the rapid expansion of newspapers in America.
“It was a common practice for 19th-century newspapers to republish poems, fiction excerpts, and even lists of facts that were originally published elsewhere. Editors would subscribe to many newspapers and would cut out things they thought were interesting, relevant, or fit a space on the page that they needed to fill and then republish them in their own papers, Cordell explained.
“Many 19th-century newspapers are comprised primarily of content from other newspapers,” he said. “They were more aggregators than producers of original content. And often they were created by very small staffs, and scholars such as Ellen Gruber Garvey have shown that this aggregation is what allowed newspapers to spread as rapidly as they did in the 19th century, because you didn’t have to produce the whole thing.”
So, in summary, periods of rapid media expansion cause shifts in production techniques toward most efficient means possible (usually aggregation over new content creation), aggregation done artfully is curation, and both people and search engines love listicles, just ask Buzzfeed.