Millennials, Listicles, and Learning

Listicles have quickly become one of the more popular online writing styles. What is the correlation between their growing popularity and Millennials preference – or interest – in information consumption?

First for a definition – Macmillan Dictionary defines a “listicle” as “an article, especially on the Internet, that consists of a list of separate items rather than continuous text.” You can see examples of listicles all over the Internet covering a variety of topics – I recommend BuzzFeed’s “21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity” if you’re looking for an uplifting example that’s also received about 13 million views worldwide.

We even included a listicle in our newly released Learning Video Playbook about uses of video for associations, businesses, and educational institutions. While news outlets like BuzzFeed have used listicles to convey entertainment news in a humorous light, more formal outlets like Forbes, The New Yorker, and Wired have written pieces defending the popularity of listicles from a content (and personal preference) perspective.

While there are many nuggets of wisdom about the value of listicles, one of my favorite quotes comes from a Forbes article by Steve Denning, who said, “The popularity of listicles reflects a more profound reality that we need a way to filter and process the information being thrown at us. Listicles let us distill information in a very digestible way.” Wired also wrote an interesting piece on the longevity of listicles, with author Rachel Edidin noting, “The way we’re presented with information changes the way we process and interpret it. Lists let us process complicated information spatially, transforming it from cluster to linear progression.”

My assertion is that rather than being uninterested in current events or taking the time to read content, Millennials are keen on listicles because they allow us to maximize time and gain as much new information as possible while working within the limitations of busy lives. Rather than trying to be experts in the nuances of every topic, we’re interested in obtaining high-level knowledge in many areas.

This content delivery method doesn’t function for all needs – mathematical equations or complex economic theories would be difficult to compress in this way without leaving out important details – but listicles do provide a “CliffsNotes” alternative to trying to consume every piece of data in the 24/7 news and media cycles of today’s world.

Personal experience backs this assertion along with Denning and Edidin’s statements. As someone who writes at work all day, it’s difficult to go home and intake more long-form writing as a leisure activity. On the other hand, it’s sometimes easy to spend hours aimlessly scrolling through articles on my phone, only to finally shut it off and realize I’ve retained no more than a handful of fragments from all the pieces I read. When reading listicles, I’m able to skim titles and easily decide whether or not to spend time diving into the body copy or move on to another piece. This approach allows me to engage with more content, in less time, with improved recall. This is incredibly valuable to me as someone who wishes to remain a lifelong learner but also has laundry to do, dishes to wash, and a host of other tasks in need of attention.

Denning ended his piece by saying, “We want to have knowledge broad enough to span different disciplines, but also deep enough within one specialization to be considered an expert. The listicle is great for accumulating a breadth of knowledge. It allows us to scan through material to gauge whether we find it interesting, and whether we care to dive deeper.” In a world where the information stream is endless, finding strategies to filter what we care about and scan for new opportunities may be one of the most important Millennial skills yet.

Today's Millennial Monday cartoon:
Cartoons by Vicky Woodward