1. Lists organize our brains. "People have been making lists for as long as we've had the ability to write," said Gordon Coonfield, director of graduate studies in communication and associate professor of communication at Villanova University. Our very own Declaration of Independence contains a long "list of grievances." In Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, the hapless narrator lists virtually everything in a constant quest to show off his musical smarts and codify his messy relationships. "Lists take abstract concepts and make them concrete," Coonfield said.
2. Old-school lists are just right for the Internet age. Lists are the mainstay of online news site BuzzFeed, and a solid presence on rivals such as the Huffington Post and Mashable. The lists, and all the clicks and shares that come with them, are a major reason BuzzFeed saw its traffic triple in the course of a year, to more than 85 million visitors per month. BuzzFeed posts 300 to 400 stories per day, and a solid third of those, a number that continues to increase, are in list form.
3. Lists are manna for a distracted reader. "They're snappy, they're attention-getting, and in today's media landscape, that's really important given the number of options people have," said Ron Bishop, a professor in Drexel University's department of culture and communication.
Bishop said listicles can function like a loss leader in a grocery store, an appealing product sold at a steep discount, with the intention of luring customers to more profitable products. A catchy list of "25 Great '80s Songs" attracts the reader. With any luck, that reader will then stay on the page, read other stories, and come back to the website again and again.
4. Not every list is trivial. In September, the Washington Post's Ezra Klein wrote "10 Things That Could Go Very Wrong If We Attack Syria." When Nelson Mandela died last month, USA Today published "9 Lesser-Known Facts About Nelson Mandela." Traditional media will probably continue in this vein, Bishop said. "The lists don't mean they'll stop covering serious topics. But they have to package their news in a way that gets people to start reading."
BuzzFeed has been hiring journalists and plans to increase its coverage of hard news, both in traditional and listicle formats. "A top-down article is a venerable form of presenting the news, but it's not the only way," said Jack Shepherd, editorial director of BuzzFeed. "There are many ways to present content, and I think a lot of news outlets will start experimenting with this form."
5. But let's be honest - some lists are really, really trivial. Shepherd once compiled a list called "109 Cats in Sweaters." "By the time they got to No. 30, I'm sure some readers were thinking, 'Oh, there are 79 more of these things?' This was probably the lowest example of the form."
What makes a good list? In Shepherd's view, the best lists evoke an emotional response in the reader. In 2012, Shepherd compiled "21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity." Chock-full of animal rescues and dinners paid for by strangers, it's become one of BuzzFeed's most popular posts, with 14 million views and 24,000 shares.
6. Lists offer the promise of publishing for novice authors. Andrew Adams is a Villanova blogger ( www.whenisnow.wordpress.com) who began writing lists for BuzzFeed in an effort to get experience for paid writing jobs. In March, he submitted "35 Ways You Know You Are From Philly." With nods to Rocky, soft pretzels, and the Broad Street Bullies, the list has been viewed 151,199 times. It's been shared 6,000 times on Facebook, and Tweeted 526 times. It's no sneezing baby panda, but it's not bad for a new writer looking for exposure.
Shepherd says BuzzFeed now receives as many as 200 reader submissions per day. Only a small number make it onto the website, and an even smaller fraction receive prominent placement that can guarantee high numbers of readers, comments, and shares. He estimated that 30 percent of BuzzFeed's lists come from readers, with the rest written by paid staffers.
7. Lists invite public opinion. Lots of it. So far, Adams' list has elicited 73 comments, including jibes like "fail sauce," "half of this list is way off-point," and "this list is bad and you should feel bad." Adams takes the comments in stride, noting that some readers may have taken his post a bit too seriously.
Comments are one way the websites measure reader engagement. The most important to Shepherd, though, is "shares," which come when readers click a button and pass along the story via Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or other social media sites. Racking up large numbers of shares can help websites boost their advertising revenue. At the core, they're also a sign of a good story, Shepherd said.
8. A sports list polarizes readers like no other topic. Comments on sports-related lists take on a sports-radio flavor, with language that often can't be printed in newspapers. Weather forecasters and local radio stations also spur debate, as readers rush to defend or take down the writer's choice.
9. A list with litters? Irresistible. Cats rule the Internet, but dog lists are also very popular. Shepherd noted that there are a few "outlier" animals, such as sloths, whose Internet fame surpasses their real-world popularity.
10. For lists, there's no end in sight. Literally. In the time it took to read this story, every number presented here has changed. Someone clicked, someone shared, someone Tweeted. The lists are irresistible. "Humans love to rank things," Bishop said. "It helps us navigate the terrain."