The Year of the List

It's the most wonderful time of the year! There'll be much mistle-toeing, and hearts will be glowing, and -- year-ending lists!

That's right. 'Tis the season to count down everything about the past year, from couples to controversy, from athletes to albums, from pop to provocative.

Bests and worsts of the year have become an annual tradition. But this year is different. This year, list-making has become not just a year-end delight, but a year-round sport. This year has become the Year of the List.

So much so that The New Yorker has just published not one, but two separate lists about why we love lists. When something reaches meta status, it's a trend to contend with.

Brain science, as summarized by Maria Konnikova in The New Yorker, offers several explanations for our attraction to all things listed:

  1. List titles stand out from the sea of other headlines as they're the only ones featuring numbers not just letters (didn't your eye stop on this number 1?)
  2. Lists offer instant and easily understandable categorization.
  3. Lists organize information spatially, which is how our brains best process.
  4. Lists are finite with predetermined length.

And beyond science, philosophy offers its own existential explanation. The Italian philosopher and author Umberto Eco, who has curated an entire exhibition at the Louvre based on lists and published a book-length annotated list of lists, The Infinity of Lists, boldly states:

We like lists because we don't want to die. We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That's why we like all things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It's a way of escaping thoughts about death.

But didn't we just establish that we like lists because they are finite, not infinite? Yes and yes. It seems both are true, and appeal to us for different reasons. In a similar paradox, a list is both bite-size, consumable and a deep-dive on a topic, both small and wide. The perfect Goldilocks chair for our psychology, physiology and philosophy to all find comfort in.

So if the list is our natural obsession and now national pastime, where do we go from here? If 2013 was the Year of the List, what will 2014 bring? The List According to Whom.

Just like blogging democratized op-eds, and Instagram democratized photography, list-making will expand beyond the hands of editors and reporters, and become a power of the people. A collective right to declare, to select, to rank our worlds. To create order out of chaos for ourselves. To establish our own truths.

Lists, by their very nature, present as fact. The Top Ten Best Movies of the Year. Fact. But that list didn't come down from on high, like the most famous Top Ten in history. Someone made it. And in making it, that someone claims the power to define. This year, we will all start to lay claim to that power. We will all define. We will all list. And as more and more of us do, we will get closer and closer to the real collective fact of the matter. My list, your list, his list, her list. Add them all up, and we get the most powerful list of all... Our list.

This holiday season, let us begin to make Our list -- and check it twice.