The Unholy Trinity Of Bad Internet Lists

MikeachimThe Everyday43 Comments

the list

(After my Twitter rant of last week, I needed a walk on the North York Moors to chill out. This I did. Did it work? Well, I’m now ranting about something else. I think this shows Progress.)

So, you want your post to get lots of page-hits? Want traffic roaring like a scene from Days of Thunder? (Apologies for choice of movie and hyperlink. I’ll try harder next time.) Want people to thumb-up, retweet and generally daub it in all the colors of online approval?

You’ll want a list, then.

This is what is known as Conventional Wisdom – and it’s ruining the Internet.

We can’t blame the theory. It’s correct – lists are a great way quickly and efficiently convey a lot of interesting information in a structured way. I’ve written loads of ’em, and I am Unashamed (well, Unapologetic). We get rid of lists, we start pulling a thread that makes most of civilization unravel, probably ending with Socrates’s toga.

And we shouldn’t trash lists, because lists are readable and fun and commendable if done well. Are they always? Well, not so much – and it’s getting worse every year. Cut a cross-section across the Web and you’ll find it marbled right through with the worst kind of list. Tech & gizmo news, celeb fluff, travel blogging…they’re all listing wildly, in every sense. And sooner or later, we’re all going to sink.

Here are the 3 major offenders.


 1. The Best Of.

Top Ten Types of Cheese. 15 Most Beautiful Houses With Verandas. OMG 85 Best New Susan Boyles You’ll Ever See! 158 Places You Have To Go To Before They’re Destroyed By Sarah Palin. 26 Top Things To Do When You’re on Holiday Or At Home. 183 Best Things Involving Other Things – Ever! On and on, eroding the sanity of our newly collective consciousness in tiny but distinct increments. If we’re doomed, it’s this way. (Top Ten Ways We’re Totally Doomed! Please RT.)

I hate these. (I’m not alone). But the way to respond to such a list is simple and logical: you say “OK – prove it.” Yet in a way, the reason it can’t be proved is also its best defence against criticism. It’s entirely subjective. The problem is that somewhere in the last few years, the Internet has collectively forgotten to include the words “in my humble opinion.” Probably because it was shortened to IMHO, which is smaller and therefore easier to lose.

There is no Best, or Top, or Must See Before the World Explodes/Melts. This is because no experience is repeatable, ever. The saying that you can’t cross the same stream twice? The saying that life is like a stream? Put them together and you’ve nailed it.


2. The Ones With Nothing But The Facts

If there’s one thing less enthralling than a Best Of list, it’s a Best Of list that doesn’t bother to explain why the items therein are the alleged cream of the crop.

Best Top Holiday Destinations in Spain

 1.Malaga. Malaga (Mah-lah-gah) is a city in Andalucia. It is Spain’s sixth most populous city. (That doesn’t mean it is popular although it is LOL).
2.Madrid. (Mah-dridd). Madrid is Spain’s capital, and is where most Spanish people who live in Spanish cities (“Spaniards”) live. It is big. There are several theories regarding the name “Madrid”.

So this list, already floundering in the shallow end of the gene pool, now has the further burden of failing to convey anything you couldn’t find in 5-10 seconds of lacklustre Googling. It’s a subjective list that says nothing about the reasons for the author’s choices…suggesting it was constructed on the fly, sans brain. That’s not a vibe that will have World Hum banging on your door.

Listers: take the time to say what you think, unashamed of exposing your bias. (Hey, people want bias. That’s the whole point of You). And if you really feel editorial policy is clipping your wings – don’t be brief, be more succinct.



3. The Ones That Forget We’re  Human

I’ll be honest with you – my life is kinda full right now. As fun as it is finding Cool New Stuff, there’s a real limit with how much free time I can shoehorn into my day without my sleep patterns bursting at either end. Be gentle. Be kind, internet. Show me things I can actually achieve. Please?

48 Places You Must Visit By The End of Tomorrow
900 Things You Have To Have Done To Not Be An Utter Loser

 Pretty pretty please? With…with sprinkles?

4,812 Habits That Will Make You Barely Adequate
18,449 Books That Will Solve All Your Problems (If You Read Them All: Individually, They’re Useless)

Come on, guys. Make your lists even faintly achievable (here, try this one). And don’t play that “we’re only providing variety of choice” card. Pick the best and arrange them in a list, make sure you dig deep into why they’re the best and make your line-up pithy enough give us a hope in hell of following in your footsteps…and if you do that, we’ll be happy to have you around.

Just don’t give us that sinking feeling. Please?

Further reading: List Hysteria: Digital vs. Handwritten – Candice Walsh, Matador Network.
Images: sunshinecity, samchurchill, Stewart and joshjanssen.
  • I’m partly to blame for such top 10 lists. Usually the lists entail self-deprecating moments in my life or rants about a subject that warrants a bulleted, detailed arrangement. The naked eye sees order, and my rants deserve instantaneous recognition. :)

    • We’ve all written them, I reckon. :) They’re quick and easy to write and easy on the eye. And lists in themselves aren’t bad. I keep returning to them again and again. Reliably useful and fun.

      But when the bad kinds (like the three outlined in the post) are so everpresent in pandemic quantities….there’s something rotten at the heart of things.

  • Sharon Miro

    I live for your rants. They give the rest of us fodder fro ours.

    • Excellent!

      I think.

      Well, even if I’m the focus of those rants (“Top Ten Ways That Mike Makes Us Feel Really Old And Weary”) then at least people are talking about the issues, extremely tangentially by using myself as the focus of ridicule.

      Which I hope is a good thing.

      If not, well, I’m completely screwed yet again. Hey ho.

  • damn… I think this means I am a bad writer!

    • You, writing lists that are Best Ofs, empty of opinions and wildly overdemanding on the reader?

      I’ve just read your site. Not guilty, not guilty and not guilty. :)

  • I’m glad you wrote it because I have been so tempted. Thing is, someone of whom I am fond picked up on this some months back. I think there was some advice that it made you stand out on feeds like bloglines, or something. Suddenly EVERY post was “Five things you must” or “the 10 most important!. At first I laughed then I steamed and before long I wanted to scream.

    Some things could sensibly be reduced to a useful list, and if you say it is YOUR list of the X most of this, then fine. But it is not possible that EVERY subject can be made a list and certainly not should be made into a list.

    The funny thing was just as I was fed up and ready to remove that feed from my own lists, YOU posted one and I gave up.

    Folks, yes it tells potential readers that there’s a limit to what you plan to subject them. Yes it makes a catchy title once in a while. But I no more want to explore what is listing itself in your mind than I want to scrounge through your wallet looking for your grocery list. If your mind actually does produce lists all the time, it’s not a place I want to go.

    • It’s like any skill or technique – do it all the time, and its usefulness and novelty vanishes and you’re suddenly a one-trick pony. Take Guy Ritchie. If he’d continued making cheeky-chappie London gangster movies, his career would be dead. Now he’s made “Sherlock Holmes”, his career is once again lukewarm.

      I’ve seen appalling list-crimes committed on the ‘Net. Sites without a hint of care put into them, populated with lists padded out without a hint of humanity behind the writing, then marketed as “Best Ever” wheras the opposite suggests itself to the hapless reader. That Spanish cities example? It’s my snark, but it’s almost directly copying a real list of cities in Europe on a glaringly spam-peddling blog that had me shouting “OH FOR [email protected]#’S SAKE” into an empty house at 2 am, like a madman.

      At the end of the day, we care about the Web in our own specific ways. So in our own specific ways, we get angry. This is what winds *me* up. ;)

      • In my case I was being offended by it on a site I was dedicated to supporting. It was like needles were being poked into my eyes. It made me stop and think about what in my lexicon could make a list?

        Ten things that drive me mad about blogs and websites?
        Five things that will make me delete you from my bloglines list?

  • The internet really is full of lists like these. (Only not as amusing!)

    I try to add a bit of myself to everything I post. Otherwise what’s the point? But I have to confess that posting pictures of cute cats seems to be the best way to get more hits on a post.

    Unless that’s just on my blog?

    • I try to add a bit of myself to everything I post. Otherwise what’s the point?

      Nail on head. Couldn’t put it better.

  • Hmmm. You obviously are reading my mind. Or you went through my list of ideas for future rants while I’m away in Mexico. I am on a passionate mission to eradicate this kind of trash writing. The problem is that the powers that be in SEO long ago determined that they would thumbs up lists in Digg, StumbleUpon, Mixx, etc. So now everyone writes this kind of garbage to game the system. In my opinion, however, the end user is an entirely different animal than the SEO powers. What catches the interest of a top Stumbler is not the kind of information sought by someone who is doing a Google search.

    Also, I know full well from my contract writing assignments that authors of “top ten” or “best of” lists are invariably writing about one or more places that they have never been. It is journalism at its very worst, if it can even be considered journalism. I’d like to start an online magazine that promises “NO LISTS!”

    • Agreed: the system welcomes lists. It’s good SEO – lots of systematically-arranged keywords (as sub-headings), and a post that is exactly what it says on the tin (“[x] Top Ways To [y]”). No wonder search engines are all over them like a cheap suit.

      And that’s the challenge. To subvert lists, to mess around with the format, play with possibilities until your new type of list really stands out from the crowd *and* enjoys the same kind of attention. That’s the challenge for good bloggers everywhere.

      And to be fair, I suspect there are probably more “good” lists than “bad” lists on the Web these days.

      However, there’s still too damn many of the latter…

      *bites lip to stop more ranting*

  • Wonderful rant! It’s on my list of top 4 rants from sites named FeveredMutterings. Very funny stuff.

    I’m definitely not a fan of lists that don’t share any information or unique perspective. Part of the challenge of writing for the web is avoiding throwing a wall of words at people, but add in some personality to it!

    • There’s….there’s another 3 Fevered Mutteringses out there?

      *gets a haunted look around the eyes*

      And…and I worked so hard to turn it into a brand. *sniff* But no, I’m entirely replaceable. I’m obsolete.

      Now I know what Blockbuster feels like.

      *blows nose*

      Lists are a good way to built a wall, yep. But also to build a ladder, if done right.

  • For me, lists are for when I’m feeling lazy. As in, “I really don’t feel like writing about this, don’t have anything interesting to say about it, so I’m gonna turn my brain off and make a list.” It’s a really easy structure to follow when you’re pumping out 500 word posts on commission. But you’re right about generating traffic—the few lists I’ve done on my own blog have gotten crazy hits. Makes you wonder…

    Thanks for this!

    • My pleasure. Thanks for reading. :)

      It’s a fact – when you’re pushed for time and need to get words out the door pronto, a list is the way to do it. No wonder online journalism is embracing it to such an extent (eg. the increasingly list-mad Huffington Post).

      And that’s not a bad thing in itself…

  • I dare say, could this be a (short) list about lists? *gasp*

    As Barbara says, the system is setup to reward lists. I have one recent list that has had over 20k pageviews in just a couple of weeks. Unfortunately I can’t afford to pass up that kind of traffic which supports my advertisers who in turn support me. :-)

    I do try to build lists that are truly of interest and provide value to my readers, not a list of shit you could find on Wikipedia.

    But your points are valid.

    • No no not, this isn’t a *list*.

      It’s, uh, it’s a numericially ascending enbulleted split-focus essay.

      You know. Not a list.


      20k on one post is a whopper. And as you say, it’s daft to pass up that kind of opportunity as an onlinewriter.

      But I’d say that the problem lies not in the established professional travel industry itself, but in the seedy unberbelly of spam-taught amateurs trying to muscle into it while finding any way they can to avoid putting the effort in. (You know, people like me. ;) ).

      The Copy & Paste brigade. It’s these guys. They’re my beef.

  • Just in case I’m not misunderstood – which worries me, because we all use lists as part of our blogging toolkit for good reasons – I’m not knocking lists per se. And I never will. Used well, they’re one of the best ways to get people reading to the end of your post.

    It’d be like criticising pictures because they divert attention away from the text. ;)

  • Hi Mike, I agree with the underlying premise that a lot of blogs are filled with airy content like the list types you’ve mentioned. I think some of it is innocent dabblings, writers trying to find what works. Others are likely SEO driven.

    But there also seems to be a lot of post bashing among travel bloggers. Why? Is it naive of me to believe that good writing (with a fair amount of networking) will win out in the end?

    I’m enjoying your blog!

    • Good writing wins out eventually, I agree. Destined for longevity if it’s the real deal. But good writing uses social media to reach its audience, and when that’s getting swamped by posts designed to get traffic rather than actually say something…well, I can understand folk getting irked. “Success” (ie. getting an audience) becomes devalued (because eyeballs are swamped by information-overload), and writing is less and less meritocratic. It gets harder to rise above the hubbub. That’s the worry.

      Also, writers like to rant. It’s how they do.

      Add them together, and you have lots of soapboxes occupied by lots of bloggers. Which is of course great fun. Bring it on. :)

      Thanks for popping by, Keith!

  • I’ve made very few lists on my blog. I think I may have one serious list, which was a list of women-run sites for International Women’s Day (I think I got 10 hits from it). I may have also written a joke list about Obama’s State of the Union address.

    Think I’ll go write a top 10 list of lists.

    • Let me know when it’s finished and I’ll include it in my upcoming Top ten lists of best top ten lists of lists.

      (Well, that title may need a bit of work. Maybe a Best in there somewhere).

  • Readers like lists. SEO likes list. Our desire for traffic like lists. As writers we bash lists. I’m not sure that makes us right and everyone else wrong. I just find it curious that as writers we’re always bashing lists but no one else seems to. . . . .

    Lists are a tool, sometimes used properly and sometimes not. Sort of like a butter knife — which I’ve used properly to spread butter and also improperly as a screwdriver when I didn’t have one handy. It accomplished what I needed done, so I’m not sure it was all that wrong.

    If you don’t like lists, don’t read them. Same goes for any other blog post, or novel, or newspaper article — or television program or movie.

  • I too am weary of lists. I think its genesis is in magazines, but SEO and social media has made it worse online.

  • One of my favourite posts ever was your LIST of 50 (?) perfectly ordinary things to do before you die and it is the only one of these lists I have ever acted on. I went to the toolbox and took out the hammer and marvelled at how much lighter it was, if you held it by the head. Please repost or stick up a link.

  • Oops!

    While lists for a blog post are generally big attention-grabbers, lists in general are actually pretty useful. I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t have a to-do list. Or a list of books I want to read, places I want to see… and so on.

  • Everyone and their brother seems to be posting a bucket list these days. I find it kind of morbid. And some are way too huge and poorly formatted (anal retentive? just a tad) for anyone to really want to read them IMO.

    But I am working on two lists myself, and maybe I’ll post them at some point, maybe not: must have wardrobe items, and must-see places (only as far as I’m concerned, of course). Of course there’s also the small problem that posting both will make me look really shallow. So maybe I’ll just keep them on my bulletin board for now.

  • Sharon Miro

    Elisa, I am with you. We all have lists–what self-respecting type A doesn’t? But putting them out there for everyone to see is kinda like baring it all on TV. And unless your name is Pamela Sue, probably not a good idea.

    Lists that give nothing are like anything else that gives nothing: inutile, and need to be ignored, or sent to Mike so he can rant again.

  • Great subject that gets me wound up…thanks for creating that ‘pissed off’ feeling for me with my morning cup of coffee! :)
    Yes – SEO is to blame – partially….however the real blame lies in all of us…the readers.
    We are the ones who are too busy, too overworked, too stressed, too overbooked to take the time to hunt out real journalism any longer.
    As much as I hate these lists (which seem to be prevalent in the travel writing industry) I fall prey to them. They are easy to stumble, easy to read, easy to quick Retweet. I can do/read/promote more in my day. Unfortunately I’m doing more with bad content instead of good content. So that’s really not helping the situation.

    Until we all stop the taking the ‘easy road’, lists will continue to pollute our brain and turn it to mush!

    I will take that step today…no more clicking thru/reading/promoting these lists…one small step…will you join me?

  • “158 Places You Have To Go To Before They’re Destroyed By Sarah Palin.” Bahaha! You should write this list.

    I think list making works so well because it fits with the whole “blog style” content. Easy to read, short points. That’s why I dig ’em. And thanks for the shout-out.

  • I’m with you. I almost never read lists because I don’t like them and I think they’re generally stupid. This sentiment applies to lists in publications. If I frequent a blog and one of my blogger friends create a list, they are exempt from my negativity. I like them; therefore, I like their list. And now that I’m blogging, I am guilty of sometimes writing lists! They’re kind of easy, plus I always think mine are fascinating (ha-ha). I guess others don’t agree, though, because my last list didn’t do all that well…

  • While I agree with you on the ones you chose to list, I have one to add that might compete for a spot in the top 3 (oops). One that makes me chuckle is the “Top XX Something to Something” where XX are numbers that are anything but 3, 5, or 10 – especially the random numbers like 12. If a place has 17 things to see, and you write a list of the “Top 17 Things to See” it isn’t really a top list anymore. Makes me think its being written until people run out of ideas. “Oh lets see here, I got 12 places to go to in Paris.. ok Top 12 Places to See in Paris”

    Just my thought, but I’ll stick to the standard 3, 5, or 10.

    • Upon further inspection, this might be what you were getting at with number 3. I’m just ranting about it in general terms

  • Just for you I am going to research and write Top 10 things to do and see in the Western Cape. I am going to have to use images from Flickr because I haven’t been to the mowntin in 16 years although I will be at the end of the year

  • Six years of blogging and I’ve never, ever written a list. I’m not sure whether or not this is an achievement.

  • You’ve just inspired me to write … a list of my own top ten stories, hehe.

  • TJF588

    Wonder how you feel aboot That site’s practically built on lists, though if not necessarily the best arranged (or even titled, as some may be), I have definitely learned a whole bunch of trivia from them, presented in a way I can actually digest.

  • Lists are easy to follow, short and to the point, that is why they are so popular. You have more chance of a funny/interesting list going viral than a well written post nowdays. I still hate them though.

  • I think the problem is twofold (well, more than that really but lets dumb it down into list form =P):
    1) Intellectually lazy readers
    2) Lazy writers

    The fact of the matter is, when you have an uncurated environment like the internet, things will default to the lowest common denominator. People are lazy and thus are attracted to lists which dumb complex subjects into easy to read, easily digestible chunks.

    For writers, top 10 lists are easy to crank out. Oh, don’t have time to write a top 10 lists? Well, then I guess there are only 7 places you MUST see before you die…

  • I can’t even begin to explain how much I love your blog and your writing. Your incredible sense of humour makes me feel inferior, lol. Another amazingly written piece! :)

    • Nice of you to say, Avery! Thank you. I’ll be around in my blog a lot more in 2016 (last year’s blogging was a bit scattered, as was 2015 generally) so plenty more on the way. Thanks again – M.