Listification turns knowledge into tidbits of information

10 Things You Need To Know This Morning

13 Jokes That Every Math Geek Will Find Hilarious

The 20 Most Valuable Brands In The World

7 Tornado Apps For Your Smartphone That Will Alert And Protect You

These headlines are four of the five links on Google News to Business Insider recently. Business media in particular seem enamored with lists, which they routinely use to organize disparate material, serve as examples of an idea or trend, or help to sell a category of products.  The four articles serve as examples of all of these types of lists.

But lists can do many other things: they can also convey a process in simple terms, such as 10 things to do before retiring. I frequently write about lists which result from applying a set of ideological assumptions to cities, states or other boundaries, as in the best cities in which to live; typically these assumptions favor low taxes and the automobile-and-mall culture of the suburbs and discount the importance of mass transit, cultural institutions, hospital systems and major universities. Other lists allow organizations, regions or industries to do some serious self-congratulating, as in the lists of best doctors or lawyers, or the top “40 under 40.”

Ideological subtext lurks behind most of the lists we see in the news media. Just take a look at the four Business Insider articles:

  • “13 jokes…” repeats the myth of the intelligent person (math) as a socially maladroit unathletic loser (geek).
  • “20 most valuable brands…” glorifies mindless consumerism by portraying in a positive light not just these brands, but the very idea that brands hold real value.
  • “7 tornado apps…” sells smartphones and the idea that more technology is always good.

The compilers of many lists we see in the mass media commit the sin of Procrustes, who was an ancient Greek who had a bed of one size only. If visitors were too tall for the bed, Procrustes would cut off their legs; if too short; he would put them on a rack and stretch them out. In making a list, the sin of Procrustes is get to a certain number, 7 or 12 being the most common, only by repeating what is essentially the same idea twice in slightly different words or to list two distinct ideas as one.  We can see the sin of Procrustes also at work in lists of hottest people or top doctors, because these lists will always seek to fill socially necessary spots: A “top docs” list will have at least one physician in every specialty, whereas the hottest celebrities of the year will be a rainbow of ethnic types, and nowadays of sexual proclivities as well.

You will also see contradictory advice on lists, such as in a recent list of why rich people are different. The contradictions usually derive from the writer’s need to get to 10 or 12 or 15, or because the ideological imperative is so strong that it overcomes any logical qualms.

The more bogus the list, the easier it is to write. It’s hard to do real research to determine which cities have the highest mass transit ridership or which countries are least dependent on fossil fuels for electrical generation. It’s pretty easy, though, to come up with seven or eight reasons to go to one college instead or another; it’s getting to 10 which may take a few more minutes! And for writers of financial planning articles, it’s particularly easy, since “invest in stocks,” “consider immediate annuities,” “retire later” and “open a 401(k)” will make most of the lists.  Easiest of all to write are the lists that the writer completely spins out of thin air, such as one science writer’s outrageous list of 10 dumb things he claims to have learned from brilliant people.

I’m not against all lists in the mass media. Lists that reveal hard data in simple terms can be useful, such as a list of cities with the largest population or the areas that receive the most rainfall.

What I dislike are the artificial lists that are put together by selecting ideology-tinged criteria or by pulling from the air a disparate set of ideas, pieces of advice or personalities and organizing them by a common theme. These lists almost always are Trojan horses for propaganda.

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