Spring 2003

Lists

From the (a) trivial to the (b) deadly serious, lists dominate visual culture

The 21st century is full of lists: they appear in magazines, on advertising billboards, in business presentations, on the Web, in literature and art. Though they are seductively easy to read and apparently provide a way of getting to the ‘essence’ of a subject, do we lose something by reducing valuable (or not) information into a series of bullet points?

In recent times, the editors of slick style and popular culture magazines have increasingly taken it upon themselves to reduce the world and its riches into bite-size chunks. As a result, lists – and specifically hierarchical ones – have evolved into a new super-species of lazy article. The economics of the epidemic are simple. The supply of ‘the world’s most exclusive spas’, ‘badly dressed men’ and ‘the best rock anthems of all time’ is endless. And, in a consumer society obsessed as much with the language of consumption as it is with actually buying things, the demand is certainly there. According to Folio, a US magazine industry journal, ‘best of’ list issues of magazines tend to be bestsellers.

The proliferation of lists in magazines results from a collision of conditions: dwindling editorial budgets (when you are paying by the word, conjunctions seem superfluous), the popularity of search engines such as Google that allow editors to generate lists in infinite combinations, and the aesthetic appeal of a neat vertical story that provides the illusion of order and completeness.

A list, especially one that ranks or categorises, can be a salve for the anxiety of living in an era of information overload. But the relief is short-lived. Listing the options is not the same as selecting one of them to stand by. Unless you have something to say with your list, the experience of both its creation and use ends up being hollow . . .

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