The Rise and the Importance of the Listicle

The list (and the listicle) is a takeaway in its most essential, convenient form. Mark O’Connell considers, in an essay titled “10 Paragraphs About Lists You Need in Your Life Right Now,” what it is about articles in list form that pulls us in (or why you can’t NOT read the listicle after reading its title):

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 ten (or fourteen, or thirty-three) 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 twenty-one kinds of gross offal, yes, but you don’t knowwhich kinds of offal or how gross they’re going to be. Once you’ve begun reading, a strange magnetism of the pointless asserts itself.

Don DeLillo, author of White Noise, speculated on the coming importance of the list:

In an interview with The Paris Review twenty years ago, Don DeLillo mentioned that “lists are a form of cultural hysteria.” From the vantage point of today, you wonder how much anyone—even someone as routinely prescient as DeLillo—could possibly have identified list-based hysteria in 1993. DeLillo’s statement also hints at something crucial about the list as a form: the tension between its gesturing toward order and its acknowledgement of order’s impossibility. 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 nineties nostalgia. Umberto Eco put it dramatically: “The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order.

Worth reading in entirety.

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