The Listing Phenomenon

My Facebook news-feed is full of lists…you know, those lists from Buzzfeed/Cracked/HuffPost or some other site you’ve never heard of before, etc. that seem to so effortlessly describe and defend our identities and feelings sounding a particular subject. Things like:

“23 Reasons I got Married Young”

“13 Things we Forget to Thank our Dads For” 

“20 Things Gays are Tired of Hearing”

“11 Things You should Never Say to a Fat Girl”

To name a few.

These posts are all over the place right now, and they range anywhere from (in my opinion) totally pointless – “11 Things you should never Say to a Fat Girl” – to topics that I find are worth at least a glance over: “26 Lessons your son’s future spouse will thank you for.” Let’s face it, these things are damn catchy. In fact, I just recently posted a list of my own because I find these kinds of list postings are super effective in many ways, for all the same reasons that sites like the ones I mentioned above have found so much success with this model.

Lists make for a quick read: Maximum reward with minimal effort on the part of the reader, and we’re a tech-consumed generation that’s all about instant gratification. We want a quick fix on topics that either really don’t deserve much attention, or should never be something so quickly “understood” in the first place. Of course, the title of the list had better be intriguing, otherwise it’s practically a lost cause. Titles like “20 Things Gays are Tired of Hearing” are far more appealing than something like “20 Ways to begin living a more environmentally friendly lifestyle.” 

Honestly, which one are you going to click on when you’ve got 30 minutes tops to eat your lunch before getting back to work? The most effective titles on these listings appeal to two things: Emotion & Conflict. We are drawn to these lists because they are a way of instantaneously affirming the beliefs we already have. This quick list of reasons becomes our new line of defense against those who would dare to disagree with us, especially on topics we feel so strongly about, in which case we then post it to social media as if to say: “SEE, I TOLD YOU SO!” 

EVERY SINGLE LIST is going to appeal to you in some way: The more “reasons” put on a list, the more likely you are to come across at least one idea that you can easily relate to. This is another factor that makes these lists so addicting; it’s almost impossible to NOT relate to them in some way. For example, a list like “10 Biggest differences from Freshman to Senior Year.” Chances are, you probably did change some things about your daily habits over four years time….because…it’s been FOUR YEARS. So, undoubtedly, a few of these items will pop out at you as if to say “HEY, THIS IS JUST LIKE YOU,” while some of the 10 or so items you look through make you think, “um…no, not really.” Even so, there are generally enough similarities placed on one list  for people to start accepting whole list as a set of general truths, but really, that’s all that these lists are – GENERAL TRUTHS. 

These lists aren’t exactly diving into the depths of human experience and listing off life-altering pearls of wisdom. Rather, these are short and sweet one-liners that would relate, on some level, to just about everyone you know because it happens to EVERYONE…which is why a majority of the titles have the word “EVERY” in them.The real genius in these postings is the ability to express thoughts that we all think (due to the fact that the experience is so common) into flawless statements that accurately describe most of the feelings we all feel with that given point. The only difference is, we  weren’t quite sure how to put it so simply, so someone else did.

I do admire the authors of these articles in that regard. Putting together a list of ideas and general truths that most of us have a hard time explaining even to ourselves is certainly no easy feat. And the fact that so many of us are able to connect with and relate to such complex ideas placed in such a simple context is awesome. Given how quickly these kinds of articles have caught on, it is clear that these platforms are effective in their design and purpose.

That said, I do find their undeniable prevalence in our social networks and digital world somewhat concerning. In a way, I view these lists as a bit of a cop-out for those who would rather let a list explain their views on a situation rather than through their own expressions. Every life experience is so unique and could never be accurately described by a vague list of relatable experiences. That’s not to say that these lists are doing anyone any harm, or that those who post them are merely cowards who are afraid to express their own feelings. That’s not what I’m getting at here. In many ways, I feel that these list articles bring about ideas that many of us had not yet pondered or realized. But as I mentioned, I feel it is all to easy to let a list do the talking for you, as if the 10 things listed there are a genuine representation of you and those you identify with.

These lists have even come to the point of directly contradicting other lists posted, like the “23 reasons I got married young” being posted as a sort of defense against the “23 things to do before you get married at age 23” list. In this case, we are completely circumventing meaningful dialogue on the topic of “young” marriages and allowing for a list to stand in place of our values.

Here’s What I’m Getting At: At what point do we stop sharing “lists” about life experiences and what they’re all about and start talking about them…having real conversations with people who come into the dialogue with a whole different set of experiences that can’t be expressed in 20 catchy one-liners. Let’s generate some meaningful discussions on these issue (and exercise the patience to actually have real discussion) instead of finding a list with a attention-grabbing headline that hardly scratches the surface of what it is to be someone who shares in the identity being presented….the “fat girl,” the “dad” or “mom,” the “LGBTQ,” the WHATEVER. 

Meaningful conversations, disputes, agreements and disagreements lead to an expanded consciousness, but only when we are willing to engage directly. These conversations are worth having, and they can result in real-time relationships as opposed to short-lived lists.


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