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The Downside of Lists

By Martin Douglass
There's something irresistible about ranked lists of things. You know the ones I mean - the "Top 10 Reasons To ..." or "The 5 Most Unbelievable ...." Done right, they can be punchy, informative and easy to remember. In the 1980's and '90s there was a best-selling book series called The Book of Lists, and the idea is still going strong.

Maybe too strong.

Whether you're writing a memo, a post for your company's blog, or just being cute on Facebook, there's a right and a wrong way to put together a list.

Here's an example of five "5 Worst" lists from recent years that don't quite work, and what we can learn from them:

1. "The 5 Worst Airline Meals of All Time" (Huffington Post)

Based on a popular, reflux-inducing website called AirlineMeals.Net, which contains more than 20,000 photos of actual food served to captive travelers en route, this list includes loving close-ups of "food" from such purveyors as Estonian Air. Ick.

Lesson: Don't use gross pictures, especially in mid-air

2. "The 5 Worst Tweets Ever" (Discover)
Compiled by BusinessInsider from an article in Discover, the Tweets on this list certainly qualify as ill-considered, untimely or sub-optimal (e.g., quotes from Courtney Love). Maybe even bad. But to call them the "Worst. Tweets. Ever." is to commit the common list-makers' crime of rank hyperbole.

Lesson: Don't get grandiose

3. "5 Worst Websites" (Time)

Back in 2007, Time Magazine's list of the worst of the web included such suspects as eHarmony, eVite and MySpace. So far so good. But what was truly odd were the criteria for inclusion, tinged as they were with whimsy. eHarmony was judged guilty of causing "despair." And MySpace was included despite Time having called it one of the "50 Coolest Websites" just a year earlier. Huh?

Lesson: Have solid criteria for being on the list

4. "The Top 5 Worst Terms in the World of the Cloud" (ReadWriteWeb)

Our friends over at tech-geek site ReadWriteWeb can get lost in the clouds. Last summer they launched a poll asking readers to name the five worst terms related to cloud computing for their ReadWriteCloud channel. Winners included "Cloud Computing," "Mobile Cloud," and - yes - "Cloud."

Our forecast for the usefulness of this list: Cloudy.

Lesson: Make sure your list says something
5. "The 5 Worst Types of Internet Rumors" (SocialTimes.com)

The Internet is awash in rumors, of course, and something must be done. But I'm not sure this list from the popular online marketing publication SocialTimes.com helped anyone. It includes the general categories of Celebrity Deaths, Tragic Events, Politics, Technology and Facebook. Can someone say vague? Other than Airline Food Disasters, I'm not sure what area of life is left.

Lesson: Don't be too general or vague

In my next post, I'll list the best of the "best lists."

Until then, any other "worst lists" you'd include? What do you think makes a list helpful, or unhelpful?

Related:
Why You're Feeling Sad (And Eating Carbs)
Martin Douglass is the pseudonym of an Emmy-nominated former TV and magazine writer who threw it all away to get an MBA. He currently toils anonymously in middle-management at a large Midwestern corporation.
Image courtesy of flickruser, puuikibeach

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