November 16, 2011

There are Top 10 lists for just about everything. There are lists of the top 10 viral videos, the top 10 cryptozoology stories and the top 10 coolest robots. There are even lists of the top 10 lists. (How meta!)

Rex Sorgatz, who has been creating lists of lists since 2001, says lists have become increasingly common — especially around this time of year. They’re catchy and easy to create, so it’s not surprising that news sites publish them. But why are they so popular among readers?

I talked about this with Sorgatz and Stuart Fischoff, an expert in media psychology. And, because I couldn’t resist, I turned their responses into a Top 10 list.

They make us smarter.

Lists provide us with a quick and easy way to learn about topics that we may not have followed throughout the year. If you don’t know much about graphic novels, for instance, you can look at a list of the year’s best graphic novels and learn enough to have a water-cooler conversation about them.

“Lists provide a thumbnail rundown of what or who is up and down, in and out, winning, losing, etc.,” Fischoff said in a phone interview. “[They’re] sort of predigested food for thought when we haven’t had the time to keep up but are nonetheless hungry to keep pace.”

They’re memorable.

Lists make it easier to remember information because they break it up into parts. “Psychology shows there’s a certain amount of information people can juggle,” said Fischoff, senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and a blogger for Psychology Today. “We end up coming up with a reduction technique to simplify data. If we can break things up into chunks of meaningful data, it’s much easier for us to store and remember them.”

Attaching a number to information also helps. People are more likely to remember the Top 10 albums of the year, for instance, if they see them laid out in a numbered list. If they read a story that simply mentioned the albums, they’d be less likely to remember them, Fischoff said.

Because lists help us remember, they can create a sense of nostalgia.

They’re nostalgic and futuristic.

Lists provide helpful summaries of what’s happened throughout the year, and can give us a reason to look ahead. “Their multiplying around December helps to summarize the year, encapsulates trends that have been occurring, and may be important to pay attention to for future reference, even survival,” Fischoff said.

Sorgatz, a self-described “listologist,” thinks of list as predictions of memories that will last. “There’s this form of nostalgia tied to them, but I actually think of them in terms of the future,” he said by phone. “They’re really more about attempts to define what we’re going to remember. It’s sort of a declaration of what will be remembered about this time in the future.”

They explain and order our experience.

Some lists help answer a fundamental question: Why? Wondering whether you should refinance your mortgage? Here’s a list of seven reasons you should. Ever wonder why the most qualified job candidate doesn’t always get the job? Here are three reasons why. Want some reasons to justify your purchase of the new iPhone? There’s a list for that.

Lists help us make sense of the world, and this clarity can prompt us to take action.

“Lists help tidy up, simplify, hierarchize the booming, buzzing confusion of sensory input we call life, being alive,” Fischoff said. “They help us navigate the world and the multiplying streams of information that technology and communication platforms continue to generate.”

They’re cocktail chatter.

Some lists naturally lend themselves to fun and interesting discussions. We can look at a list of the best books and talk about them with our literary friends. Or we can share a list of Top 10 YouTube videos with friends.

Social media has helped increase conversations about lists in recent years, Sorgatz said. He’s noticed that some people who used to post lists on personal blogs have started posting them on Facebook instead.

“The lists were such a democratic form, and they really tied into personal publishing 10 years ago,” Sorgatz said. “Now, the narrative that might have otherwise existed on a blog is much more likely to end up on Facebook and Twitter.”

They rank our views.

The way we react to lists says something about our personality. When we read a list of Top 10 movies, do we passively accept that these were the year’s best movies, or do we feel the urge to refute what we see?

“People like to compare their judgements and their impressions with other people’s,” Fischoff said. “If you’re a rebellious person, lists allow you to say, ‘I know what you’re saying but I think you’re wrong.”

If you want to express your opinion further, you can create your own list.

They express opinions.

No two lists are alike. If you look at five different lists of the Top 10 books of the year, they’ll likely all be different because they reflect different people’s opinions. Lists, Sorgatz said, give journalists a way to “be super opinionated without seeming like it.”

“I think media companies have latched onto lists more and more because of the culture of aggregation. Lists have become a way that you can summarize a time and overlay your identity on top of current events without having to overtly express an opinion,” Sorgatz said. “You can pull together 10 events and say ‘These are the Top 10 events of the year’ and present it as factual information. But the reality is, you’re editorializing it implicitly.”

They capture cultures.

In the introduction to a list of the 100 best TV shows of all time, Time Magazine TV Critic James Poniewozik wrote: “Lists are incredibly important. They are how we define what matters to us, what we want entertainment and art to do, what we expect of our culture.”

Lists vary from culture to culture, so looking at them can help us understand differences in cultures. “If you want to know a culture, and know what it values,” Fischoff said, “know what’s in their top 10 lists.”

They’re practical.

Many of the How To’s we publish on are in the form of lists — 10 tips for moderating a successful live chat; 10 ways journalists can use Twitter before, during or after reporting a story; 10 tools that can help data journalists do better work, be more efficient.

When information is presented in lists, it seems more practical. Ideally, readers can refer to these lists and put some of the tips into practice.

They’re motivational.

At the end of the year, people on vacation may have more time to do things they neglect throughout the year. “Lists coincide with the end of the year and the holidays,” Sorgatz said, “because they’re moments in time when we’re traveling or trapped in our parents’ house and we have more open time than we do the rest of the year.”

Sorgatz said he doesn’t play video games all year long, but then he’ll see a list of the 10 funniest video games and “hunker down for three days and do nothing but play video games.”

Similarly, lists can inspire us when we’re making resolutions. Maybe we want to start reading or exercising more. Maybe we want to start a new project and get inspired by other people’s ideas. Lists, like The New York Times’ annual “Year of Ideas” list, can help with that.

Why 10?

Ten is the “magic number” when it comes to lists, Fischoff said. He pointed out that there’s a lot of historical significance behind the number. There are 10 amendments in the Bill of Rights and 10 commandments. And our metric system is a standard set of prefixes in powers of 10. “By now, ‘top 10’ is a convention,” Fischoff said. “But its origins may be in body parts: fingers and toes, hands, feet, digits and inches.”

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As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the…
Mallary Jean Tenore

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