After six days of skimming Buzzfeed listicles addictively — whose uplifting final points can’t seem to redeem many articles for their irritating assumption that most 20-somethings are incompetent degenerates — makes the thud of the Sunday New York Times sound even heavier on my kitchen table. The transition from reading “21 Things Sassy People Wish Everyone Else Understood” to, “Our Thoroughly Modern Enemies: ISIS in the 21st Century” seems like a seismic shift, as the only thing these two articles seem to share is the number in their titles.
Print traditionalists claim that the listicle, seemingly tailor-made for the quickly shrinking attention spans of young people, has effectively risen in popularity on the back of a dying print media industry. Is it a good thing that the kind of easily digested content on sites like Buzzfeed seems to be stepping in to replace the in-depth journalism that offers logical, rather than numerically arbitrary, transitions between sophisticated ideas?
Is Cracked really replacing The New Yorker? No.
Buzzfeed is not a replacement for traditional print journalism in the same way a book review is not a replacement for reading a novel. As with the book review, a listicle may gesture towards a wider issue. Only the very foolish among us would take this type of cursory news coverage as an end to a deeper understanding. As Stephen Hull of the Huffington Post UK says, “Most of our listicles explain an issue and act as an add-on to a meatier story that uses a traditional journalism format, whereby you can build additional content around an important issue,” not the entire story itself.
The listicle arose as a tight, contained information format, meant to fulfil the demand for low-commitment entertainment reading for on-the-go youth scanning lists on their smart phones.. Short and structured reading is what people want when their time is short and structured. Holidays might be a better time where you can dust off an old copy of Moby Dick.
Yet despite the seemingly mutually exclusive existence of these two journalistic forms, much criticism of the listicle has come from angry journalists who claim that the humble list does not aspire to the comprehensive echelons of hard reporting. “Yes, the news section [of Buzzfeed] is nice and they have done some decent reporting, but it’s sort of like McDonalds selling salads. It is far too little, and far too late,” claims Ben Cohen of The Daily Banter. So it seems that critics complained when Buzzfeed did not boast a reputable news section, and now that it does, can only nitpick that the site has not forced its presence onto users who are first and foremost looking for listicles. The audience may just not demand the old product of in-depth reporting.
The appeal of the listicle is this: the voice behind the writing. Behind the list, the writer’s presence is strong, featuring their own authoritative take on a top ten list on a familiar subject. Better yet, many listicles also encourage the reader to insert themselves directly into the reading process, adding their own personal touch to discover which Disney Princess they most closely resemble. This is a far cry from the deliberately distant robot-voice prevalent through most print journalism, whose main function is to relate a story with as little personality as possible. We are inclined to search for the person behind the writing, especially when that person is us.
Listicles are far from being the only informational format available for the newest generation of news consumers. The idea of listicles being the unfortunate end-all and be-all of new journalism has been propagated by a group that is not dissimilar to those suggesting that no good music exists today. Just as the latter group may have never ventured beyond the pre-set stations on their car radios, those criticizing listicles have not done enough research. As the internet has given us listicles, it has also gave us a burgeoning market of independent news sites featuring in-depth and reputable journalism, like Vice, Geist, or Maisonneuve.
So if the in-depth journalism of a Globe and Mail Focus piece is the dinner of our news-reading habits, our meal could only be complete with a frothy listicle that is intensely entertaining and delightfully unsatisfying; each serves their own purpose while essentially complementing the other, to the detriment of neither.
Cassandra Mazza is a third-year student from Victoria College studying English.