I could have easily said three things. Or four and half things. Or even twelve. But twelve would be stretching what most of us can tolerate, what with our shrinking attention spans and Facebook obligations. So I settled on seven because it’s a lucky number, not too big, and that half business was just for intrigue. Imagine if there were ten and a half commandments. Everyone, I mean everyone, would know that half one. Especially if it had anything to do with sex, which it probably would — heaven knows God knows what gets our attention. He made us after all. Or so Sister Annunciata once told me.
Of course, there are a lot more than seven and half things you don’t give a damn about. Hell, more like a billion at least. But who’s counting? Yet how can you not give a damn about something you need to know about? Especially when there’s only seven and half of them? More intrigue. It’s an old direct mail trick and widely used advertising gimmick. If you see "must" in a headline, you can pretty much ignore it unless it’s on an envelope from the IRS, traffic court, or the Social Security administration.
What I’m talking about here are all those damned listicles. You know, the lists of things parading as articles you need to read before choosing an IRA or picking the right internet dating service or dumping your spouse. They weren’t always called listicles. That’s just a clever bit of wordplay adopted early in this century. Hard to know who coined it precisely and when, but I think it caught on because it seemed a bit risqué and vaguely salacious, rhyming so nicely as it does with testicles. Really, what did you think when you first heard about listicles? It’s like that half commandment about sex.
But while the name is new, the convention is not. Organizing your writing around lists goes way back. I think Genesis works that way with its on the 1st day, 2nd day, etc. More recently, sharp cookies like Helen Gurley Brown were using them back in the 60s. A COSMO cover from 1967 could be switched with one from 2016 with no discernible change in content tease. Oh, the celebrity names and cover gals change but the listicles have always been there: 10 Foods to Make Your Man More Loving (1968), 13 Ways to Feminine Satisfaction (1969), 7 Terrific Young Men Tell What They Most Want in a Woman (1987), 10 Things Guys Crave in Bed (2010), The 7 Best Orgasm Tricks in the World (2010), 30 Real Life Sex Tips (2014). Lists of shit sells. Lists of sexy shit sells even better. Still, I must admit to wondering about the TEN things guys crave in bed. If asked I would have guessed maybe there were two, three at the outside. Maybe I’m just old fashioned.
Anyway, listicles are used all the time because they work. If they didn’t, you wouldn’t see them. People, Forbes, and US News and World Report, and any number of Murdock rags use them all the time. Lists of things sell. Sexiest, strongest, richest, most influential, best dressed, worst dressed, hardly dressed. But this listing business has gotten a bit out of hand and is infecting even the most staid publications. Every morning the New York Times has a list of stories I need to know to start my day. The New Yorker cheats on the list thing by calling its list of articles dispatches. Sort of like critical stories from the front lines. You better read them. Something’s bound to blow up.
I’m pretty sure I started several days without the New York Times but I can’t be sure if my life would have been better if I had read those things I needed to know. Which is part of the appeal. I mean, do you really want to start your day without knowing the things you need to know? Sounds like driving without a seatbelt or riding a bike without a helmet. Two things I’m pretty religious about.
But the Times and the New Yorker are just succumbing to the new media tropes that a gajillion media outlets use in the great race for all those eyeballs, Likes, and retweets that advertisers are so crazy about. So they’re to be forgiven for a bit of huckstering. Capitalism kicked communism’s ass a while back. Everyone’s moved on. Even the Chinese. So why not the Times?
So here at the end, you’ve discovered this wasn’t a listicle after all. More of a bait and switch. I’m hoping the bait worked and you enjoyed the switch. If I’m lucky, seven, maybe seven and half people found it so. That half person is the guy who’s texting and driving. Probably without a seatbelt.
© John Hofmeister
When I'm not writing for clients, I write about things that interest me.