When you think of a listicle, is there an outlet that immediately springs to mind? Perhaps it’s Listverse or even BuzzFeed, regardless, they aren’t the only ones at it. In fact, even local newspapers have been getting in on the action. It has certainly overtaken the blogging world.
It seems as though we assume people won’t read content unless we put it in list form to make it easier to digest paragraphs. We’ve been systematically dumbing down the way we produce content leading to the dumbing down of the nation. That’s a fact and it’s why listicles are killing the credibility of blogging.
The Problem With Listicles
Ever-Shrinking Attention Spans
Social media has contributed to our shrinking attention spans. Think about it, while Twitter has expanded its character limit, it started with 140 characters. It’s difficult to convince anyone to watch a video over 5 minutes, every outlet tells you how long it will take you to read an article, and good luck gaining engagement without an image or twelve. We love to consume it which is what has contributed to the “art form.”
The problem is that we all rant and rave about the disappearance of quality content despite the fact that we’ve driven that disappearance. Long-form blogs are looked over or gone altogether and in their place we’re left with a series of listicles providing amusing images. Rarely is there information to analyze the information or to provide credible sources. It’s just slapped on a plate.
You might think this sounds innocent, but it’s changing the way you digest content because it’s driving traffic using clickbait. You should think of listicles like you do fast food — it’s nice, it’s a fun treat, but it certainly shouldn’t make up your entire diet.
When you choose fast food instead of good home cooking, you’re choosing soulless content instead of thought-provoking, reputable, well-written blogs.
The Heavy Lifting
The premise of a listicle is taking a series of ideas and putting them into one piece. So, if you’re browsing the web and you spot a listicle with the title of “5 Signs You’re An Extrovert” or “7 Fat-Busting Foods” then you have a fair idea of what you’re going to find in the article.
Your brain consumes complex information by breaking it down into chunks and a listicle is offering you information pre-chunked. Here’s a numbered or categorized paragraph that your brain doesn’t have to work too hard to break down. It’s essentially removing one of the steps the brain takes to consume and analyze information. It’s like missing a step as you run up a set of stairs.
Right now, you’re probably thinking that sounds like a good thing. If you don’t exercise your brain regularly, it’s going to deteriorate.
When you don’t actively engage your brain, it’s going to start failing you. According to Smithsonian Magazine, in 2014, 27% of American adults didn’t read a single book.
We don’t read for pleasure. If you consume high-quality content, then it stimulates your brain. It ‘shakes’ your brain out of autopilot. When you read listicles, your brain is on autopilot because there’s no challenge present.
Then there’s the added problem of people who read the headline and skip the rest, believing they know what’s a click away. Your mind can rewire itself and it does that based on our habits and neurological shifts.
So, if you’ve grown accustomed to skimming listicles, then you’ll likely struggle to absorb the information in a 25-page report on a complicated subject. You’re setting yourself up to fail.
The Story’s In The Headline
One big aspect of listicles is the headline. A listicle has to be headlined with something sensational, something that will compel readers to click. It’s not enough that they simply click on the headline, though, they have to take the next step and share it.
When it comes to listicles, the most effort, the most clever work goes into creating a headline that creates engagement. They’re built to be skimmed because the information is self-explanatory.
There’s no thesis to introduce or argument to make, it’s “here’s this information broken into bite-sized chunks. Enjoy!”
There’s no insight on offer. Ultimately, there’s very little value found in listicles. Yet, we can’t help ourselves! I for one certainly can’t. We choose to read them because we like more proof to back up what we already think, assume, believe, or know.
Your brain gets a sense of satisfaction when it sees a listicle that’s going to reinforce your opinion or a fact you already know. There’s rarely anything novel or new to learn in a listicle. They tend to revolve around common sense.
The Power of the Written Word
You may have noticed a common theme appearing in listicles — they always seem to contain images and sometimes those images are unrelated to the subject of the list. The bulk of listicle content revolves around images and gifs as opposed to the written word. Images have been an important element of journalism from the beginning, but listicles are generally dominated by images.
When it overwhelms the page and offers no relevance to the subject matter it prevents your brain from creating relevant mental images. What does that mean? It means it’s stealing your brain’s ability to challenge itself based on the information it has consumed.
When children learn how to read, they learn to read from the left to the right. Now, there’s clicks, scrolling, linking, and skimming involved. This nonlinear method of reading impacts how you comprehend information and often leads to missing out on key information. You become so accustomed to skimming content you miss important facts in heavier texts you read. The emphasis becomes based on graphics and that’s what your brain relies on to keep it on track.
Ultimately, a list can’t provide you with the whole story. It’s simply a starting point where we as the reader draw our own conclusions.
It’s Not All Bad
That said, listicles aren’t inherently negative. They can increase our understanding of content if they’re done right. Which is to say, if a writer is producing high-quality content in list form, then your brain can understand the full picture and easily analyze complicated content.
When dealing with a glut of information, statistics, figures, and facts, it can be easier to disseminate in a list form versus a long-form blog post. The problem is that often, we use listicles to increase engagement and traffic and don’t offer quality information in exchange.
If you’re someone who writes listicles or enjoys reading listicles, I encourage you to seek out high levels of quality. If you seek out high-quality listicles, then you’re not going to actively dumb yourself down provided you make an effort to read for pleasure as well. However, if the only content you consume is bullet-pointed, image-heavy listicles, or similar, then your brain is going to start failing you.
Ultimately, listicles as-is are killing the credibility of blogging.
We’ve reached the point now where most people won’t click on a listicle headline unless it’s a topic that attracts them. With all the images taking time to load and interrupting the scroll of the screen, it all feeds into a distracting environment.
There’s too much to look at, it’s too overwhelming to focus, and the balance is wrong. While there will be people who always click, the rest of us are frustrated with low-quality content overtaking the web and wasting time.
Bestselling author Ryan Holiday may have said it best,
“There is no practical purpose in our lives for most of what blogs produce other than distraction. When readers decide to start demanding quality over quantity, the economics of Internet content will change!”