The Listicle – An Unfortunate Trend Towards Throwaway Journalism

2013 has had a myriad of throwaway trends, many of them spurred on by social media, ranging from Gangnam Style and the Harlem Shake (remember that?) to a series of phenomena described by increasingly cringeworthy names like Bitcoin (which, incidentally, I regard as nothing more than a tulip panic for Randite libertarians who get off to their copies of The Fountainhead), twerk and selfie. These trends seem to have something in common, namely their transient nature. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with transient trends, although most of them just seem extraordinarily silly to me and just seem like the sort of thing to bring up in twenty years’ time just to embarrass you in front of your children. However, there’s another trend that has taken grip during 2013, one that has far more potential of going beyond impermanence and one which indicates a worrying and unfortunate descent in people’s reading standards.

This trend is, as with so many others of 2013, described by a deeply unsatisfying name – the listicle. Lists have been a component part of journalism for quite some time now, but outside of internet-focused writing, tend to be reserved for when a writer needs an easy way out near the end of the year, such as “The Top 10 Thingamajigs of 2013”. They aren’t always particularly satisfying or fulfilling reads, but they’re quickly-read, quickly-written, condensed forms of writing. The listicle attempts to shoehorn this style into an article format – and that’s when the problems start.

The listicle pre-dates the term, being the chief output of flashy magazines like Cosmopolitan and websites like Cracked. I once read a great deal of the contents of Cracked, who at least usually fill their articles with enough content to merit the “article” part of the listicle. Such writing is again not particularly satisfying nor fulfilling. It’s more like the McDonalds Extra-Value Meal of the writing world – quickly made, quickly digested and leaves you craving more about half-an-hour afterwards. I believe it to be a lazy stop-gap in place of proper articles, but the trend has been there for quite some time without showing any signs of stopping and in some rare cases, these listicles are treated as an authority on a subject – for example, Rolling Stone‘s Top 500 Songs of All Time.

Unfortunately, as the listicle has obtained its name and become apparent to more and more people, standards have dropped even lower. One of the major offenders in this field is Buzzfeed. If Cracked serves out the journalistic equivalent of McDonalds, Buzzfeed serves out the equivalent of pet food – doled out in industrial quantities with only the slightest regard for quality and after a while, making you wonder whether it’s really acceptable to be digesting it at all. But yet, there seems to be very little shame in reading Buzzfeed articles; I see them all the time popping up in my Facebook feed. I’ve read some of them. They’re almost entirely devoid of actual substance, with maybe a blurb underneath each picture to provide the sole input of the writer into the piece of writing. The relation between the elements which defines a list is tenuous at best in a Buzzfeed article. The number of elements in the list often just seems to be drawn out of a hat and there isn’t even always a match-up between what the article title indicates and what the URL indicates. I’m starting to feel dirty for venturing into them at all.

Not everybody has the appetite for writing – or reading – extensive footnoted articles. I get that. I understand why there’s an appetite for the sort of listicles that Cracked delivers. Hell, I’ve read a great deal of them. It’s a lazy sort of writing, often without a proper conclusion, but as I said, not everybody wants to – or even can – write a substantial, serious article. On the other hand, I cannot excuse Buzzfeed for its sort of writing. Shamelessly lazy, devoid of substance and cynically simplistic, a Buzzfeed listicle isn’t worth the hard disc space it’s written on.

Of course, this sort of lazy, uninspired, unfulfilling writing extends past Buzzfeed – Buzzfeed is just the lowest common denominator in all of this. My worry is that this sort of horrid writing will continue to be popular, drawing in new writers who merely wish to hop on the bandwagon and have no respect or dignity towards their own work and who will conspire to dole out this pigswill masquerading as proper writing. It behooves me to be this conservative about a digital medium, but if this is the rubbish that we will continue to receive from internet journalism, I will continue to wish in vain for the death of internet journalism and the return of printed newspapers.

By this point, some people may be thinking to themselves, “You’re probably just envious because you’re not a good writer and your articles aren’t popular”. Actually, I already know that I’m not a particularly good writer, for a variety of reasons. That said, I consider it a point of pride that I have never written a ranked listicle – and I’m open to opinions as to whether my Probing The Inaccuracies articles count as listicles or are simply sub-headed articles.