I can’t remember when exactly I noticed the creeping, insidious trend spreading like a super bug on the world wide web. Letterman parlayed it into his signature comedic stunt but then everyone and their penguin jumped on the Top 10 list craze. I use the word “craze” deliberately: it’s cray-cray how these fridge-magnet doses of vapid writing have proliferated.
To be clear, there are some lists I appreciate: for example, I’ll scour the New York Times weekly top 10 fiction and non-fiction listings knowing it may influence what I read next. I am a sucker for song countdown lists, anticipating the announcement of the #1 song in 1987 (“Walk Like an Egyptian” by the Bangles – I knew you were curious). I value helpful hints, such as presentation tips by colleague, Janice Jacob, which serve as spot-on reminders of getting one’s shit together before stepping up to the podium.
But many lists are twaddle, a hackneyed gimmick. They’ve been done to death and I’m sick of them.
I get that they’re catchy and memorable. Say for instance you don’t get the fascination with Game of Thrones but everyone at your office is hooked on the show. You know that come tomorrow, there’s gonna be serious water-cooler rehashing of last night’s episode. To dodge reliving the outlier hell you experienced as a wretched wallflower at your grade nine sock-hop, you turn to Google for help. Into the search bar you type, “10 things you didn’t see coming in Game of Thrones.” Up pops all manner of crib notes about direwolf pups and dragons, giving you the cred to nod wisely, titter at the right moments and maybe even lob a, “Hey, could you believe when Jaime pushed Bran out of the tower?” spoiler alert.
I’m pledging right here to never bait-click an inane top 10 list again. And I’m not going to ask you to wade through 10 points because that would be (a) cruel, (b) predictable, and (c) until I get going, I actually don’t have any idea how many thoughts on the topic I’ll end up with. Instead, I’ll number the remaining paragraphs to give my ramblings a semblance of flow.
- Business Week nailed the top 10 trend with this observation: “[These lists are] like a pina colada to my information overloaded brain. The value is in the information removed.”
- I get that we live in an easily distracted “squirrel!” world, but most people do have the attention span to absorb more than fast and furious nuggets. I refuse to believe that unless something interesting is packaged as a walnut-sized bullet point it won’t be read. I give people credit for being more curious, competent and smarter than that.
- I have been reminded by more than one well-meaning colleague of the importance of a catchy headline for my blogs and the presumptive value of snagging readers with a top 10 approach. If someone is looking for a quick, guaranteed way to learn something new, how could they resist clicking? While I agree that a good heading hooks the reader, the rationale behind the top 10 heading tactic is primarily for SEO. For non-bloggers, that’s “Search Engine Optimization” – a fancy term for how Google’s search engine prioritizes the results it returns. For me, it’s always about substance over style and pandering to the “top 10 list” phenom doesn’t feel right.
- The good stuff has been done: really, there is nothing original to top 10 about. But Holy Hannah, the stuff that isn’t worth a numerical countdown keeps popping up like abandoned mattresses in alleyways. To illustrate, I give you BuzzFeed. In its relentless pursuit of obscene numbers of page views, the online King of the Listicle pummels us with dozens of “who cares?” lists daily – many of which inexplicably go viral. They’re absolutely fatuous: “ 10 reasons a panda shouldn’t be your BFF” (really, there’s more than zero?); “10 signs your cat is plotting to kill you” (beware the kitty apocalypse); and “10 signs you’re too old for children” (is menopause one of them?).
- Researching lists for this blog post, I clicked on this one: “Top 10 cases of spontaneous human combustion survival.” Now I’m concerned I’ve unwittingly activated a digital alert to a creepy incineration-obsessed cyber-cult that’s now following my every keystroke in the blogosphere. Com-busted!
- Why 10? How did it become the poster child for the perfect list? How about a little airtime for six, 14 and 21 – perfectly good numbers, too. Certainly “top 10” trips off the tongue alliteratively and I suppose it’s a nod to counting on our fingers, but seriously – it’s so contrived. Broadcasting any given number of items in a list creates unnatural boundaries and limits thought.
- The list is a lazy writing approach that plays into our primitive fight-or-flight lizard brain. Its basic functioning level is to prevent our higher functioning brain from reasoning. Which is great if you stumble into a cobweb (scream, disentangle, check that the eight-legged homeowner isn’t in your hair), but not so good for thoughtful consideration. Your lizard brain is obsessed with instant gratification; top 10 lists feed the reptile.
- “I always refer to a top 10 list when I’m having relationship issues.” Said no one ever. I’m going way out on a limb here, but when did a bullet point from a list ever leave a lasting, indelible impression on you or solve a personal problem? Unless the top tip was “Don’t read any further: have an honest conversation with your partner/friend/coworker/mother, etc. instead.” Fixes are seldom simple or easy; a list discounts the real challenges and the courage it takes to confront them.
- Top 10 lists inevitably feature awkward, unnecessary items. Because the writer has committed to counting off all fingers – and s/he has run out of steam or wisdom or both by number six – inevitably superfluous points will be added to expand the list. Which is where I find myself with this blog.
- Thank you for reading this far. We both should have stopped sooner.
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