We Think, Therefore We List (With A Bullet)

Images promoting popular lists on the Web. i i

Quilt Of Web Humanity: A Google search for the phrase "10 Most" yields lists about diabolical fish, dangerous airfields, uncracked codes, magazine design, poisonous animals, expensive houses, popular slideshows — and perhaps most unironically, useless crapola (twice). NPR Illustration hide caption

itoggle caption NPR Illustration
Images promoting popular lists on the Web.

Quilt Of Web Humanity: A Google search for the phrase "10 Most" yields lists about diabolical fish, dangerous airfields, uncracked codes, magazine design, poisonous animals, expensive houses, popular slideshows — and perhaps most unironically, useless crapola (twice).

NPR Illustration

Let's say that you write for a Web site, and you want to do a quick piece on a subject that's just too simple to warrant an actual, full-blown article.

And let's say your topic is so ephemeral that even exploring it via "charticle" — a text and image mash-up — would be overkill.

Hopeless, right? Wrong: You can turn to an age-old trick, and make a list about it!

Now, you might be asking yourself, 'Why would I do that?' — hey, don't get ahead of yourself. I made a list to answer that very question.

So, here goes:

1. Web-Friendly. Lists are nonlinear. And get this: so is the Web. It makes total sense to match your content to your medium. Don't worry about going from point A to B to C — that's Old-Media think.

2. A Timesaver. The world moves fast. Who's got time to write — or God forbid, read — a whole theme paper just to suss out a cool idea? Exactly: nobody.

3. Peace Of Mind. People like it when you keep promises. And in a nonlinear, fast-paced setting, they actually kind of prefer it. It's very reassuring when somebody delivers on their promise — especially if your list has a name like, "5 Ways To Escape A Burning Plane."

4. The Fireworks Effect. If your list reviews the history of a genre — say, "8 Golden Girls Moments You Forgot (But Shouldn't)" — a discerning audience will regard each entry like the blooming of a fiery cherry blossom.

5. Like Buying A Mensa Pass. Putting a jumble of things in a list can make it seem like you gave it some thought — "Hmm. Now, why that order?" readers will ask themselves. They might even argue about it. In the business, we call that "engagement." And all you had to do was put a few ol' tags in effect!

6. Removes Media Filter. Let's admit it: Nobody likes to read some sneaky article that doesn't have the guts to have a clear headline. Can you think of anything clearer than the title, "10 Biggest Prison Brawls"?

7. Lunch Buffet Of Ideas. You can't please all the people all the time — so don't put all your eggs in one basket. That's more than a mixed metaphor; it's the truth. If you write an article about 10 things, instead of just 1 measly thing, you're 10 times more likely to please SOMEbody.

8. Money, Honey. It's not just people who like numbered lists. Computers do, too! Especially the computers at Google and other search engines. So if you want page views ($$), you'd be wise to crank out some lists, my friend.

And now, a Bonus Point: If you find that you like using lists, you might want to have them add up to some oddly random number. It's a veteran move, kind of like bidding $601 on The Price Is Right.

So, take a page from Bonnie Fuller's old US Weekly playbook, and offer 11 Reasons To ... (whatever). You can bet people will think, "I just gotta know what the last one is!"

And now you know. I have to admit, I feel a bit irresponsible letting this genie out of the bottle.

But lists are tried and true — from Moses to the Farmer's Almanac. They help us make sense of the chaotic world we live in. And that can't be all bad, can it?

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