1.) Learn About Lists 2.) See Item 1

Lists are one of the most important writing tools we have, and we love using them frequently. Here's where they came from, and why they work so well.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: David Letterman is retiring soon, and while he didn't invent the list, he probably did more to ensure its pop-culture legacy than anything BuzzFeed could ever hope. Author and Death and Taxes editor-in-chief Brian Abrams, who wrote a book about Letterman's NBC career last year, noted that the idea for Letterman's Top Ten list came as a satire of the then-current obsession with lists in the mass media. "Well, you know, there were a ton of top 10 lists around in those days," show co-creator Merrill Markoe told Abrams. "Entertainment Tonight was this new show, and they were doing one, for some reason, on a daily basis." And they thought there were a lot of lists back then. Today, we're gonna talk about lists. It's the final countdown. — Ernie @ Tedium

"The list doesn't destroy culture; it creates it. Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists. In fact, there is a dizzying array: lists of saints, armies and medicinal plants, or of treasures and book titles. Think of the nature collections of the 16th century. My novels, by the way, are full of lists."

— Novelist Umberto Eco, discussing the history and effectiveness of lists. Eco should know—he once curated a an exhibition at the Louvre all about lists, and also wrote a book about it called The Infinity of Lists.

A Modest Proposal

Listicles are actually incredibly old formats

Back in October, Clickhole wrote a pretty spot-on parody of online journalism called "I Am Off To Write The Great American Listicle," a piece that hinted at the ever-decreasing expectations of writers and journalists.

From the writer's end of things, we've gone from obsessing about writing and researching massive tomes and spending months on them to pulling up Google, typing in a few keywords, and praying that we can build an effective format for the stuff we're building.

From the reader's perspective, it's dumbed down, yet optimized: We're not gaining much from the list experience, but it's still plenty addictive.

Part of the reason for this is because there's simply so much stuff out there these days. In an age when lengthy rants and overwhelming visuals are the story of the day, there's something nice about a list that keeps everything well-formatted.

But it's not a format that the internet has exclusive rights to, nor is it one that is particularly new or fresh. In fact, as Esquire notes (ironically, in a listicle), people have actually been reading listicles for centuries in a variety of forms.

A key example they come up with is A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift's list of suggestions as to what to do to prevent poor children from becoming a burden on the Irish state.

"I think the advantages by the proposal which I have made are obvious and many, as well as of the highest importance," he writes just before jumping into his offspring-as-food idea. (If Swift were a blogger today, he would probably be Matt Stopera and drawing sweet BuzzFeed VC.)

But perhaps more notable is the 1592 masterwork Eight Kindes of Drunkennes, written by fellow satirist Thomas Nashe. Here's the full document, published in full, via fellow newsletter Lists of Note:

The first is ape drunke; and he leapes, and singes, and hollowes, and danceth for the heavens;

The second is lion drunke; and he flings the pots about the house, calls his hostesse whore, breakes the glasse windowes with his dagger, and is apt to quarrell with anie man that speaks to him;

The third is swine drunke; heavie, lumpish, and sleepie, and cries for a little more drinke, and a fewe more cloathes;

The fourth is sheepe drunk; wise in his conceipt, when he cannot bring foorth a right word;

The fifth is mawdlen drunke; when a fellowe will weepe for kindnes in the midst of ale, and kisse you, saying, "By God, captaine, I love thee. Goe thy wayes; thou dost not thinke so often of me as I doo thee; I would (if it pleased God) I could not love thee as well as I doo;" and then he puts his finger in his eye, and cryes;

The sixt is Martin drunke; when a man is drunke, and drinkes himselfe sober ere he stirre;

The seventh is goate drunke; when, in his drunkennes, he hath no minde but on lecherie;

The eighth is fox drunke—when he is craftie drunke, as manie of the Dutchmen bee, that will never bargaine but when they are drunke.

Put some GIFs in there and update the language, and you'll be able to get at least a million clicks on that piece of literature.

Five fun facts about lists, in list format, because we need to include a list in an article about lists

  1. Of the 22 original HTML tags created by Tim Berners-Lee, seven of them are related to lists in some way, shape, or form.
  2. In 1978, Herman Zapf created an entire font dedicated to decorative typographic markings (such as bullet points) meant to be used in lists and other communicative elements. He called it Zapf Dingbats, and the typeface took on a life of its own during the desktop publishing age and with the rise of Microsoft Word and Powerpoint. Ironically, the most famous usage of the font didn't have anything to do with lists at all—in 1994, Ray Gun graphic designer David Carson took a boring interview with musician Brian Ferry and changed it into a Zapfstravaganza.
  3. Know how they always talk about actors being on the A List, the B List, and so on? There's actually a guy who puts that list together. For decades, journalist James Ulmer has been ranking celebrities on his Ulmer List based on bankability, professionalism, and willingness to promote a film. You can buy a copy here.
  4. Telephone books are essentially giant lists of numbers, and the first of those lists came out in 1878, when Connecticut's New Haven District Telephone Company put out a list of all the businesses and citizens with telephones. The 50-item list fit on a single sheet of 5.51-inch by 8.26-inch paper.
  5. Benjamin Franklin may have been one of the earliest advocates of the to-do list. His productivity tricks are still used by some people to this day, as is his list of "13 Virtues."


The number of users on Trello, an organizational app that essentially allows users to create lists of lists. 1.7 million of those users log in every month, many enchanted by the idea of making lists for just about everything. (Lists are big among businesspeople, obvs.)

Lists take the guesswork out of learning new things. We don't have to parse the information with quite as much thought or heavy lifting, and it naturally helps us organize things that may not fit so easily into other formats.

Recently, my wife has picked up an addiction to a site called Listverse, which she says is even better than Wikipedia for late-night reading. The lists come from so many directions and suck you in. When you're done with one, off to the next one. It doesn't even matter what the list is about, honestly—you'll read to the end if the information it's presenting is interesting enough.

And the crazy part is that Listverse just has people submit these lists to them, without even knowing if said list is even going to be accepted, for the mere possibility of earning $100 for more than 1,500 words. (Warning to budding freelance list-makers: That's less than 7 cents per word. You can do better.)

But the site's publishers are honestly geniuses—they know that people love writing lists, so it's not even like actual work for most people.

Somewhere in this giant haystack of needles lies the Great American Listicle, and there's a chance that someone's clicking on it right now. Because we love lists.

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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