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ten reasons to ignore lists
counting the flaws of this favorite format
by dirk cotton

List articles are gimmicks. They’re literary candy that catches our eye but ultimately leaves us unnourished.

I received a link on Twitter the other day to an article that listed the Twelve Most Annoying Types of FaceBookers. I have also recently received links to Nine Scientifically Proven Ways to Get Retweeted on Twitter (as if you could get ReTweeted somewhere other than Twitter), 10 Best Things We’ll Say to Our Grandkids (funny, actually) and Ten Reasons Not to Eat Ping-Pong Balls. Google “ten reasons” and you will be amazed.

I confess that I made up the ping-pong thing, although my friend, Terry Templeton, wrote an essay for English class in 1969 entitled “The Disadvantages of Eating Ping-Pong Balls”, long before the Internet came along. Terry was way ahead of his time.

There was nothing unusual about the FaceBooker article, itself. It was the endless stream of list articles in magazines at the grocery checkout stand (Ten Secrets to Great Skin) and on the Web that made me yell, “enough!” at my startled iMac. The article was somewhat unique in listing twelve items instead of ten, which brings me to item number one on my list of reasons to ignore lists.

1. Ten is nearly always an arbitrarily selected number. Ten makes a catchy title. It sounds good because it is a round number that matches our number of toes or fingers, but there are seldom ten true list items. In all likelihood, there are either more and the writer omits some to reach ten, or there are fewer and the writer fabricates a couple to pad the difference. Either way, the reader gets shortchanged. Twelve is perhaps a little less artificial than ten but, on the other hand, it is an even dozen. When I see someone write about seven items one day, or maybe thirteen, I'll know the writer was at least selective about what made the list.

2. Lists are a cop-out for blocked writers with a deadline. With a deadline looming and no creative ideas for a topic, lists are an easy way out. Can’t think of a topic? How about The Ten Worst Things to Put in an Email Signature File, or The Ten Dumbest Things I Read on FaceBook This Week? Don’t we readers deserve topics that are thoughtful and entertaining but might not fit into a bullet list?

3. Lists tend to provide little support for their assertions. Lists don’t offer much opportunity to establish connections, provide background or reasoning, or to supply supporting evidence for their observations.

When we establish that two events tend to happen simultaneously, we need to determine causality before conferring one of the events with predictive qualities. I may note that the stock market tends to do well when the NFC wins the Super Bowl, for instance, but I know that the latter does not cause the former. A list article entitled Nine Scientifically Proven Ways to Get Retweeted on Twitter observes that Tweets that use TinyURL.com to shorten long hyperlinks are far less likely to be ReTweeted than those that use bit.ly. Can we, therefore, increase the probability that our Tweet will be ReTweeted by using bit.ly? Not likely.

There are probably just more applications that use bit.ly than TinyURL. Common sense suggests there is likely no causal link between selection of an URL-shortener and the likelihood of being ReTweeted. The writer doesn’t bother with such analysis, but hey, it makes an interesting list that happens to be precisely a dozen items long.

4. List-writers presume an authority that they haven’t earned. On what authority do I write an article listing the ten most annoying Tweets or FaceBook posts? These are not written on the basis of surveys or studies or a well constructed argument, but personal observations and reactions. The article should rightfully be entitled The Ten FaceBook Posts that Annoy Me, Personally, the Most. Of course, you wouldn’t read an article with that title, because you don’t care that much about my personal likes and dislikes. But, if I can insinuate that these are the things that annoy everyone, you just might.

5. Lists lack organization that provides insight. As my son, the English major, puts it, paragraphs have a responsibility to one another, but list items only answer to an arbitrary category. List articles don't explore relationships, causes or even inconsistencies.

6. They don’t help. No one stops bragging on their children, forwarding chain letter emails, providing mundane updates (“I’m having breakfast now”), promoting their blog, or acknowledging the death of famous people they care about because someone publishes those items on a list. No one.

Furthermore, these are things that people I know and love do in person every day and I don’t hand them a list telling them what they could do to annoy me less. It’s what makes us different and interesting. If a friend Tweets that he is listening to Nick Drake, it may seem mundane to you, but it tells me that we have something in common and I’m happy to learn it. Dude, not every Tweet is about you.

7. It just encourages them. If writers believe you will read a list article any time they can’t think of a truly interesting topic, they’ll do it again. And next time, instead of reading Ten Bad Topics to Post on FaceBook, you’ll end up reading a list of reasons not to read lists.

I don’t really have any items eight through ten. I lied in the title to catch your eye, though I respect you too much to brazenly make up three more reasons. I suppose I just couldn’t think of anything else to write about. I began writing an article entitled The Ten Most Important Things I Have Forgotten, but as you can imagine, it didn’t go well.


Dirk Cotton is a retired executive of a Fortune 500 Internet company who loves to spend time with his family, fly fish, shoot sporting clays, attend college baseball games, sail, follow the Wildcats, and write. Everything else he does is just for fun. A computer programmer-cum-marketing executive-cum-financial planner who now wants to be a writer, he apparently can't decide what he wants to be when he grows up. He and his family moved to The Southern Part of Heaven in 2005 and couldn't be happier with that decision.

more about dirk cotton


my grandfather's favorite joke
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topic: humor
published: 8.5.10

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topic: humor
published: 1.17.10


adam kraemer
10.7.09 @ 9:30a

a) Regarding #5, I nearly always make sure my list entries in my columns flow into each other. Or are well-distributed in terms of length or subject matter.

b) I'm actually a little happy that I don't know what TinyURL.com or bit.ly have to do with the lives of people around me.

c) Good evening.

dirk cotton
10.7.09 @ 11:32a

A lot of people don't like Twitter, and for a lot of good reasons. (URL shorteners work with all the social media, not just Twitter.) I like it a lot and the reason I like it, ironically, is that I use it less and less.

The value of Twitter is having someone you trust forward you a link to something valuable on the web that you otherwise would have missed. Steve Case, my old boss at AOL, is the absolute best at this, though he posts the same links on FaceBook, so you could get them there. You get a short description and a hyperlink to things I find interesting much of the time.

The trick is to filter out the garbage from people who add no value and it isn't hard to do. I block people I don't know or who frequently send vacuous tweets. There are also desktop Twitter clients like Seesmic and TweetDeck and many allow you to group the people you follow, so you know where to look for what. Consequently, when I look at my Twitter client today, there is very little garbage there and a lot of useful information.

The client is important because it's much handier than logging onto a website.

I think Twitter will ultimately succeed, but I think it's finding it's way at present. Most people don't get it and it's easy to see why.

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