The Tao of the Listicle

A new app developed by The Office’s B.J. Novak demonstrates how lists are the perfect medium for a moment obsessed with inclusion and identity.

Chris Lott / Flickr
The 10 Commandments. The 95 Theses. The 127 Hours and the 27 Dresses and the 10 Things I Hate About You. The mix tape. The menu. The card catalog. The grocery list. The top ten list. The to-do list. The bucket list. The lists of lists. The lists of lists of lists.
Western culture loves lists. The list-o-mania runs counter to the logic of the list itself, in that it is both broad and inclusive: From the accounting of Mesopotamia—believed to have been the occasion for humans to create the mixed blessing that is writing—to the Count of Sesame Street, we have relied on lists both to include and exclude, to delineate and declare, to instruct and remember. “The list is the origin of culture,” Umberto Eco, himself famously a fan of the list, put it. “It’s part of the history of art and literature.”
He added:

What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.

And also, these days, through quasi-journalistic rankings (seasons of The Wire, ranked; pumpkin-spice foods, ranked; rankings, ranked). And through Wikipedia (lists of Lego sets‎, lists of blue plaques, lists of events‎, and—to engage in a bit of ranking, myself—my personal favorite: lists of things considered unusual‎). And through Facebook (“favorite movies,” “favorite books,” “favorite music,” etc.). And through apps that promise to bring even more efficiency to that most aspirationally efficient of things: the to-do list. And through entire websites devoted to lists. And through articles that promise to help you on your journey toward self-discovery, 27 very specific problems at a time.
The latest entrant into the grand and growing field of human list-making is, appropriately, an app. It is called, with apt simplicity, The List App, and it is the creation of the writer and actor B.J. Novak and a team of developers. It’s a social list (not to be confused with a socialist) app, designed to make and share lists that are meant to evoke, lists that are meant to argue, lists that are meant to inform, lists that are meant to delight. It will allow its users, the app’s explanation notes, to “share your experiences, opinions, and expertise and enjoy lists from friends and the leading voices in TV & film, music, food, sports, news, fashion, comedy, and more in a vibrant and positive community.”
Novak and his team add to their introduction some context that the famous historical list-makers Leonardo da Vinci and John Lennon and Ben Franklin and Hunter S. Thompson would likely include on lists of things they appreciate. “Human beings are innately inclined towards structuring information,” they note; “it’s one of our primary means of understanding. Lists are simple, powerful; the gold standard of sorting and sharing information for thousands of years.”
They are right, of course. Humans have long felt overwhelmed by the information—facts, history, social codes—swirling around them. We have long sought to add order to that chaos through lists, both literal and less so.
And yet there’s something about this particular moment that is particularly suited to lists. It’s not just all the anxieties about “information overload” that the Internet has occasioned. It’s not just that lists promise, in form if not in action, to bring a sense of order to the world, offering an elegant antithesis to the end of endings.
It’s also that, in their framework, lists are obsessed with—indeed, they are premised on—the social dynamics of inclusivity and exclusivity. All those “30 Under 30” lists. All those “you know you’re a Millennial when” lists. All those rankings—of cultural products and, implicitly and sometimes very much not, of people. BuzzFeed may be most famously associated with the demolisticle, the list that aims to create a community by virtue of excluding other people from it; every list, though, on some level, has that function.
Thus the tao of the listicle. Which is, these days, often meant to provoke—and sometimes troll, and sometimes outrage—via, specifically, its exclusions. Sometimes the exclusions are intentional; sometimes they are not. By design, however, the list is clubby. It makes an argument about belonging. As Vulture explains of its “Millennial 100” list, also known as “100 Pop-Culture Things That Make You a Millennial”:

The concept here is a simple one: These are the 100 pop-culture markers that resonate most with the Millennial Generation. We’ve placed it in ranked list form (very Millennial) and are publishing it for you to read on the Internet (super Millennial), where you will likely criticize it vociferously (Über-Millennial).

And as The New Yorker put it in explaining its “20 Under 40” list:

The habit of list-making can seem arbitrary or absurd, leaving the list-makers endlessly open to second-guessing (although to encourage such second-guessing is perhaps the best reason to make lists).

Indeed. The list, in that formulation, is both a declaration and a provocation, both a question and an answer, both a beginning and an ending. And all of those boths, on some level, reflect one of the biggest anxieties of our cultural moment: Who is included at a particular event, or in a particular product, or within a particular community? Whose voice is heard? And whose, more importantly, is not? Black Lives Matter, Gamergate, #changetheratio, #tcot—all of those movements, on some level, aim to grapple with those questions. And, for all their differences, they have one other question in common: What is a community—what is a culture—if not, on some level, a list of people?
As Descartes might say, had apps been around when he was making his own sense of the world: “I list, therefore I am.”