Gold top 10 winnerToday I have been pondering a general social media question: why does so much information get rehashed into lists on the internet? Why does everything have to be shoe-horned into a ‘Top 5’ (or Best 7, or 10 Reasons Why…)?

There’s a seemingly endless number of examples of this in my twitter feed today.
10 signs you’ve outgrown your job, 9 must-have skills for business survival, 8 positive things you can do to change your life, 7 surefire tips to overcome anxiety, 6 ways to get a better night’s sleep, 5 key leadership skills. And a partridge in a pear tree.

I decided to research this phenomenon and quickly realised that I am not the only person to be suffering from List Overload. Oren Mendez sums it up nicely on The Huffington Post, and the banality of lists is humorously pointed out (in list form – how else?) here. There’s even a word for these listy (as opposed to listless?) articles: LISTICLES (as explained by Steven Poole in the Guardian).

I’m no expert, but I can very well see that lists are a very effective format for social media. From a writer’s point of view, they’re quick and easy to compile and often involve less brainpower and research than a ‘proper’ feature. Social media gurus tell us that a successful blog needs new content at least twice a week, if not every day; we feel under continuous pressure to come up with new material. An easy-to-throw-together list can be a great solution.

Lists are also a great way to attract readers’ attention. People don’t have the time to read a long essay on every subject that interests them; they want to grasp the essence quickly, almost at a glance, and lists do this par excellence. Being noticed is, after all, the main objective here, and if followers know in advance that the feature isn’t going to take up much of their time, they’re more likely to click on that link.

Of course, Top 10-style lists are far from new – my brother attributes his vast and eclectic factual knowledge to the ‘Top 10 Of Everything’ books he used to devour as a child. Lists are the best way to present facts (real ones) and How-Tos, and can be a witty way to deal with a lighthearted subject. But they are, on occasion, soooo inane. And they are decidedly NOT the best format for more weighty subjects. ‘Top 10 Cancer-Causing Foods’ – really? ‘Top 15 Killer Ingredients In Skin Care’ – no, just no. This is simplistic scaremongering. Complicated topics such as these require far more thought and development than is possible in a few lonely bullet points.

In this well-known article Nicholas Carr makes the argument that the internet is gradually stripping us of our capacity for concentration and contemplation. He might be right, but for now, most of us are still capable of following an argument from its introduction right through to its conclusion; we don’t only think in sound bites. I can’t help but feel slightly insulted by the implication that we, as readers, can only understand something if it’s numbered 1-10. The blogs I enjoy are varied, not only in subject matter but also in delivery style, because different subject matters demand different treatment.
So let’s mix it up a bit, people!