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A collection of lists, and why lists work.

While looking for an old blog post as a reference for a new post, I found myself clicking through comments and blogrolls still saved in the ancient HTML.

A blogroll was a list of blogs that were recommended reading. It served as a way to let others know about blogs we liked as well as build the community. Blogs, blogrolls, and comments (along with forums and user groups that Google eventually got ahold of and left to die slowly to the spammers) were the social media of that day.

It was a stroll through two decades past, and I discovered which of my blog pals and readers were still active. There were a handful of people who had died, and many more URLs that had died. Some URLs were still live but the blog posts had dwindled to nothing around ten or fifteen years ago.

But through that post-mortem of blogging history, I came across Onegus Moonbones, a frequent commenter on my original blog, who still had a live website.

social post

In a list post he wrote titled “Never Before So Much,” I had to chuckle, wondering if there was some purposeful kind of reference to “The Red Wheelbarrow” poem or just an accidental stumble into grasping the true economies that moved today’s world.

So much depends on the water heater, the speed at which one types, the red wagon in the front yard, commentary from David French—it’s one of the best lists I’ve read a long time as far as lists that make you chuckle and then wonder about what pattern lurks within.

Years ago I bought a book entitled Created In Darkness By Troubled Americans: The Best Of McSweeney’s Humor Category and I frequently pull it off the shelf just to snicker at some of the strange lists found in its pages. Not only are the lists themselves hilarious, but the weirdo headlines do serious heavy laugh-lifting, too. There is just something funny about an oddball list that I love, enough that I’ve put them in my own work, from books and blogs to magazines.

Why does the list deliver so well?

It’s tidy poetry.

It’s a glimpse into the organizational structure of a person’s mind.

It’s seeing behind the curtain when it comes to how a person is associating what he sees as related items.

It’s the slow build to the perfect punch line.

It’s an exercise in creativity.

It’s an exercise in reading comprehension.

It brings order to chaos, because a list is finite and even if it’s not in order, it seems to be in order.

lone prairie magazine

In one of my magazines from several years ago, I had a list of “Five Ways My Employment History Would Have Been Different If I Could Only Communicate Through Yelling.” It started as a blog post, because list posts were/are all the rage. No doubt magazine readers were highly confused.

You know you’d click on the following links if you saw them:

  • 11 Ways You’re Wrong

  • A List Of The Varied Ways You Are A Terrible Driver, With Specific Details, And Should Be Removed From General Traffic

  • Top 50 Laws That Are Ruining Your Life

  • 5 Signs You’re About To Be Rich And Discover Relatives You Never Knew You Had That Will Make You Wish You Were Poor Again

  • 7 Ways To Lose Significant Weight In Just One Week, Complete With Emergency Room Hospitalization How-To Guide

  • Six Reasons You’re Ruining The Internet

  • A Detailed Description Of The Cars That Have Narrowly Missed You Because You’re Using Your Phone In Traffic And Think That Driving Slower Makes It Safe But You’re Totally Wrong

  • Potentially Embarrassing List Of The Surprisingly Similar Sounding Audio Recordings Your Smart Phone Made Because You Bring Your Phone Into The Bathroom

I read this, and frankly, I’m dying to read these lists myself! Martin Luther was onto something with his list and the whole door thing. And we all know, thanks to Paul Simon, that there must be fifty ways to leave your lover.

Back in my content marketing days, I wrote about the high traffic value of a list post, including such things as:

  • How many list items is perfect (25, or odd/rounded numbers)

  • What words to use in the headline (emotional)

  • Using the number itself, and not the word

  • Keep list item explanation brief if it’s a long list

There was more but that is a boring list, contributing to the detritus that was/is the content marketing internet in which every topic is deemed a viable candidate for click bastardization.

Imagine, for example, reading a headline when the Titanic sank that screamed “10 People Who Should Have Died” or “5 Reasons Ice Is Bad.” Imagine if your local newspaper started running stories titled “15 Reasons The New Restaurant Is New” and how you’d feel about every life experience becoming a listicle.

But that McSweeney’s book. And the funny blog post above. Jeff Foxworthy’s entire “you might be a redneck routine” which was basically a giant list—these reveal the hilarious power in a list.

I’d say more but I have Two Reasons My Cat Is About To Die and I must go deal with it.


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