Before Buzzfeed…

Why do humans love lists (and listicles online)?

My take is that when something says “10 ways to…” or “5 reasons why…” you are apt to click on it because you have a predefined sense of how much time it’s going to take you to get through it. Lists are easier to read because you don’t feel as though you’ll have to mentally make your own list of takeaways by reading an un-ordered text.

In this morning’s commentary, Nicholas Colas, chief market strategist at ConvergEx Group, looks at the phenomenon that is Buzzfeed (friends of mine) and shows that, throughout history, lists have been a great way to get people’s attention.

Here’s Nick:


The Code of Hammurabi: A list of 282 laws set down by a Babylonian king around 1770 B.C.  Instead of the living by whims of a given local ruler, people could look to a definitive list of wages for different professions, punishment for crimes, and other codified behaviors.  Most of the ancient world lived in near anarchy for centuries at a spell; Hammurabi brought some order with his “List”.

The Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not…. Test people’s memory with too many laws.  The cornerstone of monotheism today, providing guidance on moral behavior since about 1,000 B.C.  When, by the by, the Jewish population was wandering in the wilderness after the Exodus – order out of chaos.

All of Aristotle: Ancient Athens had a lot going for it, but all the arguing philosophers probably made dinner parties a bit tiresome.  Aristotle, the most famous student of Plato, organized all philosophical and scientific pursuits into categories governed by 10 distinct qualities such as substance, quantity, time and place.

Seven Circles of Hell:  The beginning of the Renaissance in Italy, and a rediscovery of classical Roman and Greek philosophy and literature.  Dante pens the Inferno, where Virgil leads him through seven successive levels of Hell, each one worse than the last.  How to make sense of the worst place in the afterlife?  Make a list!

95 Theses: If Buzzfeed had been hiring in the 1500s in Germany, Martin Luther would have been employee #1.  Luther’s primary beef with the Vatican was the selling of indulgences, but he knew that a diatribe against the practice would not garner the same attention as a list.  Enter the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in northern Europe, all thanks to the power of a list.

The U.S. Bill of Rights: The American Constitution is a powerful framework to create a just government, but it is a little light on specifics.  The first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, cover everything from freedom of religion to rules of search and seizure to the right to a speedy trial.

David Letterman’s Top 10 List: The Late Show’s nightly list is the mitochondrial DNA from which all modern lists originate.  First aired in 1985, the format was a mocking send-up of magazine “Top 10” lists in periodicals such as People.  Steve O’Donnell, then head writer for Letterman, was supposedly inspired by a Cosmopolitan magazine list of Top 10 bachelors which included 84 year old William Paley of CBS.  The rest is TV – and now Internet – history.



“Nicholas Colas, chief market strategist at ConvergEx Group, a global brokerage company based in New York.”

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