(By Richard Goodman, 21 November 2015)
The other day, I downloaded a new app for my phone. It is called “The List App” and it is exactly what you think it is- an app where people make lists of various things. Any kind of thing, really. There is a list of books people have on their bedside table, a list of the five best burger places in L.A., a list of childhood crushes which includes non-famous people, a ranking of “Saved By The Bell Songs”, a list of shows that used rape as a plot point, a list of carpet colors that the lister did NOT buy at Home Depot (a very funny list, actually), and of course the scary-in-so-many-ways list “Proof That My Cat Wants To Kill Me”.
There are some celebrities on the app too, since it was started by one (B.J. Novak, from The Office, Knocked Up, and, um, The Smurfs) and he is taking an active role in trying to expand the fan base by hands on curating and list making. Granted, there is no “Anna Kendrik level” celebrity lister, but there are some people I like, such as Aya Cash (You’re The Worst), Gillian Jacobs (Community) and Edgar Wright (Shaun Of The Dead). Of course, Lena Dunham is on the app too but I just can’t make myself follow her. So as I look at the various lists, I notice some people follow the conventional 5 or ten point list but then there are others that do random numbers or longer lists.
That got me thinking about what people normally use as a standard length when making lists and why they use that particular number of items for their list. Here is my official ranking, as determined by a completely subjective and non-scientific method, of the most commonly used quantities when making a list of things.
10- The gold standard of list length. Everyone makes top ten lists when compiling “stuff”. Even if they only have 7 items, they find a way to stretch it out to get to ten items because ten is such a nice number. It feels comprehensive but not overwhelmingly so and it fits nicely on a page or a screen. It is also how you normally count things, if you are European (or, really, anything but American) and embrace the logic of the metric system. Ten items allows for some flexibility and room for non-obvious choices on a list. Imagine if a list of the best Stephen King novels was only 5 items long. That list would always contain The Stand, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and Misery. You wouldn’t be able to let Night Shift, The Green Mile, Firestarter, Carrie, Different Seasons, Pet Semetary, Under The Dome, Skeleton Crew, or Thinner on the list and they deserve consideration. David Letterman cemented the ten item list in pop culture consciousness through years of humorous use (and some groaningly bad use) on his late night show.
5- This is the little sibling of the Top Ten list. Sometimes you have time or space constraints, like when a news channel or morning radio talk show has about a minute of air time to banter and make jokes about the previous week’s top movies at the box office. You want to seem like you are covering the entertainment news but you can’t really devote too much time to the topic. This type of use usually means that someone took a top ten list and only discussed the first five items. It is like a Cliff’s Note’s version of a top ten list. A Top Five list is also used when you just can’t legitimately get to ten items. For example, you can’t make a top ten list of your favorite Beatles. Once you rank Paul McCartney, George Harrison, John Lennon, and Ringo Starr (and in that order), you are basically just deciding whether to put either Pete Best or Stu Sutcliff on the list. That’s on six names you are dealing with. Even if you get sort of crazy and decide to throw in Billy Preston or George Martin, or really crazy and include Brian Epstein, that’s only nine names, tops. It is better to display restraint and judgment and keep the list to 5 legitimate names so your list has some validity.
20- The expanded, deluxe edition of the Top Ten list for when you have so many good choices that limiting it to ten items would be a disservice. For instance, listing the top twenty James Bond movies, television series final episodes, restaurants in the Washington DC area, movies of the year, dream vacation destinations, and so forth. When the number of quality choices goes way beyond ten items, you go to the expanded edition and decide on twenty worthy selections. Does your bucket list have just 5 items on it? No, probably not. It is more likely to be a list of 20 things to do.
50 - Some things just need a longer length so you can get into a scholarly discussion, like “What are the most important chemical elements?” or “What are the most vital songs to include on a Rolling Stones 3CD compilation?” You can bring up obscure things that might have been more important than initially thought and a longer list can bring that to light. When you bring up a list of the best modern day inventions and innovations, do you usually mention the zipper? Self-adhesive labels and stamps? The remote control? No, you usually don’t if the list is a shorter one, like a ten or twenty item list, which gets filled up with stuff like the computer, the wheel, flight, refrigeration, pacemakers, television, the Internet, the highway system, and so on. But imagine how annoying it would be if you had to button all your clothes, tape labels to boxes and folders and letters and change television channels by hand? A list of 50 items might get to some of those lesser innovations that do impact your life.
100- A list of a hundred items is really only used for two things. First, it is for music lists, like the Billboard Hot 100 Songs of the week or a list of the best “something” in Rolling Stone magazine, like the 100 Best Guitarists Of All-Time, or the 100 Greatest Rock & Roll Songs. The second, and most frequent, is a list of wedding guests. Yep, 100 invited guests is the ideal use for a list of 100 things. Of course, the ideal list length for guests who RSVP affirmatively is more like 50 or 20. Nobody actually wants 100 guests to show up unless they have plenty of money to burn, aren’t having a destination wedding or plan to have the food and drinks catered by KFC and Bud Light.
3- This length is used when there are only three items of note and the list is being used to rank their importance. Like The Father, Son and Holy Ghost or what are your favorites NCIS shows? (NCIS, NCIS: LA, NCIS: New Orleans) What are the best Hunger Games books (Hunger Games, Mockingjay, Catching Fire) or Lisbeth Salander books (Dragon Tattoo, Hornet’s Nest, Played With Fire)? What are the best Matrix movies? (Yes, the AniMatrix is a valid choice) What are the best Indiana Jones movies? (Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Temple Of Doom, Last Crusade in that order and no, Kingdom Of the Crystal Skull is not a valid choice.) Topics like those are the perfect use for a list of three. You only use this when there are exactly three choices or you have less than five choices and you want to make a statement by leaving off a fourth possible choice.
13, 21 & 29- No one makes lists of this length. No one, that is, except Buzzfeed and they use the crap out of them. Every list they put out is some random number like the “13 Cutest Cat Videos”, the “21 Elf On The Shelf Accessories You Need This Christmas”, and the “29 Playlists To Listen To When Everything Sucks”. They own this concept but I do object to this willy-nilly usage. Surely if you can find 13 cat videos worth watching, you can find 7 more and get to a list of twenty items. I’ve heard there are quite a few cat videos on the Internet…..
12- A number used by self-help groups who decided to add two more items to a Top Ten list to make it seem more serious. I mean, have you ever seen the Alcoholics Anonymous list of 12 steps? There is some serious padding to it. They could easily make it into a tight, concise list of ten items easily, maybe even seven items if they tried hard, and tactically used some semicolons.
40- List of this length were very popular in the 70’s and 80’s but were used almost exclusively for showcasing the top songs of the week as compiled by Casey Kasem, from Billboard magazine’s charts. No one does Top 40 lists anymore and certainly no one refers to “Top 40” as a type of musical programming. Music played on satellite radio channels are determined by the name of the channel which alludes to their theme, like “The Bridge” (songs that are not quite rock nor pop, what used to be called Adult Contemporary), “The Pulse” (heavy dance music, what used to be called techno and club music) and “Hair Nation” (hard rock and light metal from the mid 1980’s to mid 1990’s, what used to be called glam/hair metal.) Music played on terrestrial radio (AM/FM) is just as niche as satellite radio but the stations don’t have cool names, there are commercials and the playlists are controlled by one or two mega-conglomerates like Clear Channel which dictates that the same 500 or so songs are played by every station they run. I sometimes wish I could still hear a diverse 40 song list and then “Keep my feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars!”
500- Used exclusively for Memorial Day countdowns of the 500 best songs of all-time on the classic rock station in your area.
1,000- The number of places you are supposed to have visited by the time you die, assuming you live a long time and have a generous vacation day policy at work.
Tie: 1 & 11- Ties are used when someone is too indecisive about which item to leave off a list to get it to one of the commonly acceptable lengths, like five, ten or twenty. (Anyone who shows a tie on a 50 or 100 item list is just being a putz, unless the list is based on numeric data and there really is a statistical tie.) A tie that results in a list that is really eleven items long means someone wanted to list eleven items AND not look like a putz for list that is a non-standard length. This actually makes them a bigger putz than someone who just charges ahead with a non-standard length list.
One item lists are used by people who want to express an opinion and make it look legit by putting it in a list. Just say it on Facebook or Twitter instead because it isn’t a fact just because you show it in list form. Along the same lines, making a list like “The Coolest Women I Know” and only listing your girlfriend means you want to flatter her because you really enjoy having sex with her. Or you did something wrong and can’t afford flowers and a real apology. It’s very transparent, so just stop it.
Furthermore, listing something multiple times like “The Best 2016 Presidential Candidates” and saying number one is Donald Trump, number two is Donald Trump and number three is…. also Donald Trump is even worse than just listing one item. Plus it means you are helping to send this country to hell in a hand basket and you scare me.