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Why the Internet Loves Lists

Why do we love lists so much? Science and literature might have some answers

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This person love lists so much she had one tattooed on her. Image: Rob and Stephanie Levy

If you want to make something that does well on the internet, you’ll be doing yourself a favor to put it in list form. The internet cannot get enough lists. But why do we love lists so much? Science has some answers, and The Guardian brings them to you, in list form here.

Here are some of the reasons:

Lists take advantage of a limited attention span

There is an increasingly common view that internet use shortens a person’s attention span. While a lot of this is Greenfield-esque paranoia about new technology, evidence suggests our visual attention is attracted to novelty, and on the internet novelty is always only a click away. There is data to suggest that this is how internet use works, and much of the web is dedicated to exploiting this….

You probably won’t remember all the things on a typical list

A lot of lists are lists of 10, or some multiple thereof, given that the majority of humans have grown up using the decimal system. However, short-term memory, or “working memory” as it’s known to psychologists, has an average capacity of 7 (+/-2). This means you can hold an average of 7 “things” in your short term memory…

Popular things can be listed

Lists are very popular, so logically lists about popular things would be more popular again. Bacon, sexy ladies, funny cats and tweets, all of these regularly end up on lists. You may say this point isn’t scientific in any way, but I include it as evidence for the above point. Which means it is scientific in a very tenuous way.

The Guardian has all ten reasons in their story. But other writers have tackled this question, too. NPR’s Linton Weeks took it on in 2009, and, yes, he listed his answers in a ten point list too. Here are some of them:

Lists bring order to chaos. “People are attracted to lists because we live in an era of overstimulation, especially in terms of information,” says David Wallechinsky, a co-author of the fabulous Book of Lists, first published in 1977 and followed by subsequent editions. “And lists help us in organizing what is otherwise overwhelming.”

Lists can be meaningful. The Steven Spielberg classic Schindler’s List is based on the true story of a German businessman who used a list of names to save more than 1,000 Jews from the concentration camps. It is ranked eighth on the American Film Institute’s 2007 list of 100 top American films of the past 100 years.

Lists relieve stress and focus the mind. “Lists,” sociologist Scott Schaffer told The Oregonian newspaper, “really get to the heart of what it is we need to do to get through another day on this planet.”

The Awl has a list of 127 reasons that we love lists including the following quote:

“To my mind, the difference would be where lists support your quality of life or where they begin to impede your quality of life—where having your list perfected gets in the way of your functioning, or having too many lists. It’s a matter of how you use them. They can give you control in a certain way, but you don’t want them to be the only thing you do to gain control.”

—Dr. Cynthia Green, clinical psychologist and brain health/memory specialist, interview with the author

These lists of why we love lists go on and on. Clearly, we do love them—but too many ways to list all off them.

More from Smithsonian.com:

What Is on Your Life List?
The List: Five Volcanoes to Watch

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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