The Internet Diet: Clickbait, Listicles and Cute Animal Pictures

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List-based articles, or ‘listicles’ have been around for quite some time in popular media formats. But it would appear they have gained popularity with the advent of sites like BuzzFeed, Cracked and Newsworthy and their penchant for listicle-style clickbait.

Why are listicles so popular?

Listicles play on our shared experiences, our curiosity, our nostalgia, or—as is commonly the case—our impulse to waste time looking at pictures of cute animals.

Listicles draw the reader in by promising a linear, sometimes superficial and organised summation of facts. In an age where our time is short and our attention spans are even shorter the listicle entices us with easy-to-digest bites of infotainment.

The Guardian cites ‘news snacking’ as a reason for the rise of the listicle, referencing a 2013 survey of news reading habits conducted by a mobile company which, “found news reading to have been replaced by ‘news snacking’; checking news content far more frequently, for short, sharp bursts of attention.”

An appetite for news snacking is exactly what astoundingly popular website BuzzFeed banks on. The New York Times calls BuzzFeed, “a web traffic sensation that draws 150 million average monthly viewers.”

The popularity of the listicle speaks to our place in the global information age. Listicles represent curated thought sourced from websites, communities and thinkers around the globe.

Is a list the best way to share an idea?

Orderly, finite and to-the-point, lists help bring organisation and structure. Consider list-lover Benjamin Franklin’s 13 Virtues, a list of virtues he measured his life against. Or one of the most famous lists of all, the Ten Commandments, a list defining a holy God and laying foundational moral principles to live by.

In 2009 novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco curated an exhibition for the Louvre based around artists and poets who feature lists in their work. For Eco, lists teach us about life and culture. They help us to break down and digest the big ideas of life. In an interview with Spiegel Online Eco said:

“The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order—not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.”

Is there a better way to communicate?

In today’s context lists deliver information succinctly—matching our distracted attention spans. Lists are a quick way to rack up views on an Internet site, but does our obsession with listicles do us a disservice?

Even at BuzzFeed, where listicles are generated by the second, there is a move to develop and cultivate long-form journalism. Perhaps the modern reader comes for the listicle, but stays for the feature essay?

In a Radio New Zealand National podcast, The Guardian reporter Rupert Neate commented on BuzzFeed’s move to expand their news division with, “correspondents in Syria, Gaza and [BuzzFeed] is starting to break some big stories in America.” Despite the popularity of listicles it would seem there is value in other modes of communication.

We need more than just lists

Let’s face it: lists are limited. So often they skim the surface of ideas and fail to provoke deep thought. Commonly known by the derogatory term ‘clickbait’, many listicles are designed to pique our curiosity and secure the valued ‘click’ of our mouse.

Consider the listicles trending on BuzzFeed at the time of writing: ‘30 Clips You Can’t Help But Watch Over And Over Again’, ‘26 Best Pictures In The History Of The Internet’ and ‘24 Amazingly Delicious Ways To Eat Pistachios’.

A diet full of ‘news snacking’ leads us to binge on the wrong stuff. Bloated and sick, we become addicted to the quick fix of shallow, fact-based information. Before we know it we can find big ideas hard to digest and handle. It is easy to approach the Bible with a similar snacking mentality. A bite here, a nibble there. We pick it up, opening at random and hoping for inspiration.

Before we rush to release ‘66 Books That Show God’s Love: The Bible in Listicle Format’ let’s consider the breadth and depth of material the Bible provides. It includes a mix of genres: poetry, history, narrative, law, prophecy, philosophy, apocalyptic and letters. Yes, there are even a few lists in there! It illustrates the range of human experience: suffering, joy, life, death, spirituality, family, meaning and taxes. Life is more than lists.

We easily forget the Bible is God-breathed and all of it is useful. All of it has a purpose. Even the long bits, the hard bits, the confusing and challenging bits. Let’s leave the snack mentality behind when we pick up God’s word. Let’s sit down to a real meal.

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