Have you ever wondered why lists, and listicles, are so popular on the Internet? Between BuzzFeed-style GIF-filled “Top 10 Reasons Why ______ Means _______” pieces and The Awl’s gently mocking “Listicle Without Commentary” series, the format unarguably drives a huge amount of Internet traffic—so much so that legacy media companies are scrambling to keep up (see The Washington Post’s Upworthy inspired Wonkblog spinoff, KnowMore). It turns out the reason for their insane popularity isn’t any techy, SEO stuff, it’s that lists tap into an inherent human desire for order.
On The New Yorker’s Elements blog, psychologist Maria Konnikova dives deep into why our brains love organization:
The headline catches our eye in a stream of content; it positions its subject within a preëxisting category and classification system, like “talented animals”; it spatially organizes the information; and it promises a story that’s finite, whose length has been quantified upfront. Together, these ￼create an easy reading experience, in which the mental heavy lifting of conceptualization, categorization, and analysis is completed well in advance of actual consumption—a bit like sipping green juice instead of munching on a bundle of kale. And there’s little that our brains crave more than effortlessly acquired data.
The other great traffic-driver of 2013, besides listicles, was the powerhouse known as Upworthy. Along with its many, many, many clones, Upworthy essentially created an entirely new kind of clickbait. They’re instantly recognizable; take “We May Tell Our Kids That Life Isn’t Fair, But We Should Actually Listen To Them Talk About Fairness”, for example. Robinson Meyer (The Atlantic) describes them as “[making] an emotional promise… [having] two phrases… [and painting] their political proposition as obvious, as beyond debate.” Clickbait generators, like Upworthy or the aforementioned KnowMore, work because they give just enough information to pique interest, but not enough to be able to move on without clicking. It works incredibly well; in November 2013, Upworthy had 87 million unique visitors. Contra The New York Times, only receives about 31 million unique visitors each month.
All of this squares with Alexis Madrigal’s recent piece in The Atlantic about Netflix genres—he discovered that there are over 70,000 subgenres, all based on what Netflix thinks we want to watch, created from terabytes of data they gather from surveys and observing users’ viewing habits. Netflix optimizes our psychology to give us the perfect taste of what we want. The human mind craves organization and order, which is a reason why, say, supermarket tabloids are so successful. They’re not classy or subtle or high-minded, but their headlines are as obvious as they come. The faster we can decipher information about something without doing any work—even if the “work” takes milliseconds—the more interested we are in it. As Konnikova writes, “faced with a detailed discussion of policies toward China or five insane buildings under construction in Shanghai, we tend to choose the latter bite-sized option, even when we know we will not be entirely satisfied by it.”
This flies directly in the face of the online chatter about longform journalism making a comeback, but doesn’t necessarily contradict it. There are different audiences for detailed Chinese policy white papers and crazy architecture in Shanghai lists—people know which they want. There are even outlets that bridge the gap between useful informational journalism and fun listicle type stuff—Wonkblog comes to mind. So though all these trends are fascinating, they’re not really indicative of anything beyond themselves.
Listicles, Upworthy headlines, and Netflix subgenres are just three examples of web 2.0 companies using the basics of human psychology—what interests us, what drives us to click things—to generate massive revenues. Google, which relies on advertising perhaps more than any other web company (it’s 95 percent of their annual revenue), uses all kinds of data they’ve collected about users to select which ads appear whenever people search anything, and it obviously works; Google made about $14 billion last year. Human psychology drives more than the website economy (stock and bond markets, for example), but￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼ Google, Netflix, and others are the ones on the cutting edge of figuring out how to get people to click and watch things based on unconscious desires and demands of consumers. Listicles, targeted ads, and weird subgenres are only the beginning.
“A List of Reasons Why Our Brains Love Lists”, Maria Konnikova, The New Yorker Elements.
“How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood”, Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic
“Why Are Upworthy Headlines Suddenly Everywhere?”, Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic