Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Listicle As Life

Mark O’Connell:

The list—or, more specifically, the listicle—extends a promise of the definitive while necessarily revealing that no such promise could ever be fulfilled. It arises out of a desire to impose order on a life, a culture, a society, a difficult matter, a vast and teeming panorama of cat adorability and 90s nostalgia …

Contemporary media culture prioritizes the smart take, the sound bite, the takeaway—and the list is the takeaway in its most convenient form …

The list is an oddly submissive reading experience. You are, initially, sucked in by the promise of a neatly quantified serving of information or diversion. There will be precisely 10 (or 14, or 33) items in this text, and they will pertain to precisely this stated topic. You know exactly what you’re going to get with a listicle. But there’s also a narrower sense in which you don’t know what you’re going to get at all. You know you’re going to get 21 kinds of gross offal, yes, but you don’t know which kinds of offal or how gross they’re going to be. Once you’ve begun reading, a strange magnetism of the pointless asserts itself …

The list gives a structure—a numerical narrative—to a text that would otherwise lack any kind of internal architecture. If you wanted to write something about, say, the phrases people use on Twitter that you find highly irritating, you can get away with not making any kind of overall, analytical point by imposing the framework of a list. The enumeration itself, the getting to the end of the counting, becomes the point of the writing (and the reading). It’s not simply a jumbled heap of complaints about how people talk on Twitter; it’s a list, and in this sense it means business. It’s “10 Phrases People Need to Stop Using on Twitter,” with all the interventionist urgency and narrative propulsion that implies. As a reader, you’re probably going to click on it and read it, out of the expectation that some of your own most-hated phrases have been included therein, or out of the desire to experience some harmless outrage that they haven’t. (“Jesus, I can’t believe they left out ‘BREAKING: …’”)