Remember when online content used to be relatable listicles?
And when knocking one out was a guaranteed traffic win, like, you could do any XX things you’ll feel if you XX and it would rake in more views than any brilliant feature you worked on and a minimum of 10k shares?
That was the best of times
And the worst of times
Worst, not because there’s anything wrong with listicles
Seriously, don’t knock them, they’re a great content format
But worst because this was a moment when you really had to neatly stack the big question of WHO YOU ARE into a numbered list, and if WHO YOU ARE wasn’t relatable enough to get loads of shares, that was both a personal failing and a professional one
Take a look back at some of the big hitters, then go to the writer’s author page, and check out all the listicles they’ve ever written. You’ll spot their most online-content-marketable traits distilled into chunks. They’ve written things you’ll only know if you’re depressed, memes you’ll relate to if you’re an introvert, references you’ll only understand if you went grew up in this specific town in North London
Chat to some writers of that time and they’ll likely tell you stories of how this exact behaviour of excess categorisation was coaxed out of them
I’ve heard about people being sat down on their first day and asked to write down five things that make them who they are, then drill down into each area, to mine each bitesize piece of themselves for content that will share far and wide
Like maybe one of the branches on your content tree would be that your parents are from India, so this will turn into twigs (posts) of not simply XX things only Indian people know but also XX jokes children of Indian parents will laugh at, XX photos of appropriated Indian food that will enrage you, XX lonely moments you had as an Indian girl going to a predominantly white school where racism was very much a thing, XX awkward moments you definitely had when you were taught by Ms X at X school and also you were an Indian girl but had an English accent
It gets granular, basically, and people tasked with this would often get into a weird spiral where they were trying to narrow down part of themselves to the point that content could be ‘oddly specific’ but still relevant to more than one person in the world
Do you see how that would mess with your mind? Either the most unusual special things about you are too personal, don’t resonate, and you have thus failed, or the most unusual, special things about you are actually very common, you are in fact not a beautiful original artwork but instead a mosaic of other people’s familiar experiences, fragmented into digestible bits and pieces
So yes, that part of the great listicle boom wasn’t great
It’s a bit of an ask to make you question the essence of your identity for shit money, or for no money at all, as a ‘community’ piece or ‘blog’ that you hope will perform well, show everyone you’re really funny and talented, and land you a job
And to be clear, sometimes that latter option really did work a treat
Writing a great listicle is a skill. It’s an easy win if you have the knack for it, but you do have to get the core parts of what makes for a brilliant list
You have to absolutely nail the topic, as we’ve covered, the sweet spot of widely relatable but niche enough to make anyone who DOES relate feel seen and special enough to share your article as a way to share who they are with the world
Then you have to make sure you’ve got enough points. Odd numbers click better than even. 27 things tends to perform the best, but 23 is nice, or 101 if the point is how funny it is that there are that many things
You need to make sure the tone is right
And the pace, the rhythm
You need a funny point
Communist jokes aren’t funny unless everyone gets them
Then a couple of neutral filler ones. They don’t need to be great, as long as the overall effect is good
And honestly, I’ve seen the number of shares outweigh the number of clicks enough times to know that many people just don’t read the listicle at all, so you can get away with shovelling some nonsense in there.
Then you need a surprisingly emotional one, that really hits home.
Like: you’re sometimes hit by an overwhelming sense that nothing you do will ever actually matter. When you die, your name will drift away and no real impact will be left behind. Your fantasies about writing something brilliant or suddenly being noticed as this hero probably aren’t going to come true, and you’re so scared to confront this that you’d rather do nothing, just talk about doing big things or think about what it might be like, so you don’t have to come to terms with the realisation that you’re just not talented enough, and even if you were, it doesn’t really make a difference in the grand scheme of things. Maybe you should just stop chasing approval and admiration and embrace a life that’s average, but somewhat happy.
You have to mix long list items with
It’s about pace, you know?
You have to be clever. Maybe you can be a bit ironic and self-referential, like ooh, I’m aware this is a listicle, so I’m going to make it a listicle about why listicles are flawed, ha ha ha ha
I still think there will be a lot of people who don’t read to this point, so I can basically just give up now, you get the gist. I can throw in a little confession here and only some people will see it.
I am very unhappy with my body and it’s making me miserable, but I am lacking the drive to do anything about it. I could limit what I eat and go to the gym again but I can’t be BOTHERED. I’m just tired all the time and want to sleep, and be sad, and beat myself up for being shit. I’ve got a real self-destructive streak, too, where I feel drawn to just going all out and embracing wreckage. Anyway.
Do you remember when listicles just kind of… stopped?
They reached the hype point and were EVERYWHERE, they were the online content industry, they were what people shared on Twitter and Facebook and they would actually be described as going ‘viral’, then… it just stopped
It wasn’t a sudden thing, though. That sort of clean break would have been easier.
Nope, instead we did a slow fade. The listicles kept coming, but they were sad, damp, dull. They got a few clicks but nothing like before.
Listicles trickled from multiple a day to one a week, then to now and again, then they were pitched and editors would say ‘I’m just feeling a bit meh about listicles, you know? It’s an interesting subject though, maybe you could do a really clicky opinion piece instead?'
Now the listicle is old, it’s over, it’s passé . It’s millennials. It’s millennials talking about being millennials. It’s millennials talking about being cheugy and joking (but not really) about wanting TikTok teens to think they’re cool
Maybe one day we’ll see a resurgence
Did you know that ThoughtCatalog is still going, but none of the top articles have a number in the title?
Did you know that once we were young people and our value was predicated on our youngness, and soon the same old people we screwed over will screw us right back by bringing in even younger people in our place?
Did you know that we’ll continue to be, even without listicles defining our existence, even when the way we express our being is no longer cool?
Did you know we have to keep existing like this and figuring out what’s real, and what’s been shaped by the way we’ve learned to express truth, whether that’s memes about frogs or the way it used to be funny to say you’re just a sack of flesh on a spinning rock, but now it’s overdone?
What do I think if it’s not expressed in the way I’ve learned is right?
Do you really know XX things if you aren’t an X who X?
And are you really an X without someone making a list of X things to tick off?
Another take on working culture, but an interesting angle I hadn’t considered. Well worth reading.
I’m sure you know by now that every edition of guess i’ll die has to have an Amelia Tait reading rec, it is simply the law. This one’s about Facebook-ers
Here’s a good tweet:
And here’s something you just need to see: