If you look at the most popular articles online at any given moment, there's a very good chance that they're of two kinds: news and lists. For some reason, we're completely obsessed with compartmentalizing our information, splitting it into easily-digestible, numbered lists. Today, I'd like to examine why.
What exactly is it about the list format that makes it so popular?
1.The Headline Tells Us Exactly What To Expect
First and foremost, the headline of a list is almost immediately attention-grabbing. Right out the door, it presents us with the topic, quantifies the length of the piece, and gives us an idea of how we're supposed to feel about all of it. As noted by Maria Konnikova of The New Yorker, the headline of a list handles most of the heavy lifting out the door - and the fact that we know a definitive ending exists is somehow comforting.
"The headline catches our eye in a stream of content; it positions its subject within a preexisting category and classification system; it spatially organizes the information; and it promises a story that's finite, whose length has been quantified upfront," she writes.
2.They Pull You In (And Never Let Go Until You're Done)
Tell me if this experience sounds familiar to you: you're browsing through your Facebook news feed, skimming over the stories, experiences, and pictures uploaded by your followers. Suddenly, a headline catches your eye: X reasons Y is absolutely disgusting. Before you even realize what you're doing, you've clicked on the article - almost as though you felt subconsciously compelled to do so.
Probably because you did.
"The temptation to click on the list is hard to resist," says BBC's Claudia Hammond. "It already exists, and now that you know it does, it feels as if you already own that knowledge. If you miss out by failing to click on it, you are losing something that you had in your grasp."
"As Daniel Kahneman and other psychologists have shown with years of research on loss aversion, we hate losing something we already have," she adds.
3.They're Easy To Read (And Easy To Write, Too)
As I already mentioned earlier, the headline of a list article basically quantifies everything about the article right out the door. There's no doubt about what you're in for; no question of whether you need to read between the lines. There's simply you, the author, and the information they plan to share with you.
They can easily be scanned for information, and everyone can absorb them at their own pace. In addition, the separation of an article's main 'talking points' into individual categories means you've always got an easy reference point to return to if you get lost or confused. That's always been a tenet of SEO, by the way - separating an article into short paragraphs separated by subheads makes it a whole lot easier to read.
"[Lists] create an easy reading experience, in which the mental heavy lifting of conceptualization, categorization, and analysis is completed well in advance of actual consumption," Konnikova explains. "It's a bit like sipping green juice instead of munching on a bundle of kale. And there's little our brains crave more than effortlessly acquired data."
It also helps that lists are actually a fair bit easier to write than other, more substantial content. As the writer, you don't need to worry about bridging paragraphs to one another, nor do you really have to focus much on the flow of the article. As long as it delivers what it promised, you're in the clear.
4. They Feel More Manageable Than Long Form Content
We're living in what I like to call the information age - which means that, unfortunately, we're constantly being flooded with white noise from all sides whenever we're online. As a result, we start to get a little fatigued. We feel busier than we actually are; more exhausted and more tuned out from the world around us.
"The information expansion means that we have a huge number of sources vying for our attention, giving us the feeling that we can never keep up," writes Hammond. "Lists seem less of a burden than more forbidding, narrative articles or essays."
5. They Just FEEL Good To Read (And Even Better To Finish)
The modern web user is addicted to gratification. Try to talk your way around that notion however you like, it doesn't make it any less true. It's why Facebook games are so popular. It's why people act out on social media and grow obsessed with acquiring likes, shares, and followers. And it's one of the main reasons why lists are so popular.
These days, we're paralyzed by something known as the paradox of choice. The number of choices we have for how to entertain ourselves online - what games to play, what articles to read, what sites to visit - are almost infinite. And that's terrifying.
According to research by Claude Messner and Michaela Wänke, the best way to deal with that paradox is to conceptualize and reduce the amount of conscious work we have to do. And once we actually do finish a list article, it feels good - we feel happy and gratified, as though we set a goal for ourselves and completed that goal.
That feeling alone is enough to make us click on future list articles, says psychologist Robert Zajonc. We remember the feeling of satisfaction we got from prior pieces, and that informs future reading decisions. Or as Zajonc puts it, "preferences need no inferences."
I'd hazard to say that lists - or 'listicles,' as they're called - are the most popular form of content on the Internet today. It's not hard to see why. Something about how they're written and designed appeals to the modern web user. They're islands in an endless sea of content, promising readers a concrete, finite experience; easily digestible information, and a sense of satisfaction at the end of it all.