August finally arrived for real on Tuesday, when BuzzFeed announced the ne plus ultra of Internet time-wastes. The ListiClock, sponsored by Pepsi Next, coughs up a listicle every time the earth revolves one-fifth of a mile. This morning, when I let the clock into my life, I was offered links to “13 Best Cute Print Ads of the Last 10 Years” (complete with a disclaimer about how the author of the listicle hates these but readers don’t), 27 cats dressed up as rabbits, and a classic meta piece that collated all the #BadBuzzFeedLists dreamed up by Twitter users four months ago.
It’s fine for what it is. And, after all, hating BuzzFeed—which I don’t, especially not the reporting verticals—only makes it stronger. But there’s a knowing self-parody in the ListiClock, an acknowledgment that most of the site’s viral content is best used as a quick sugar rush in between writing work emails. “You can actually sit back and have a leanback BuzzFeed experience,” the company’s CEO told TechCrunch.
But what if we want more from our listicles? What if we work standing up, because we want to live longer? For listicles that stay with you, we have Cracked, which published an all-time classic response piece this week after the Daily Mail ripped off one of the humor site’s lists. According to Cracked, the snafu was all theirs: When you write for their site, they explained, “a singing jewel will descend from the heavens and mystically bless you with fabulous space-time powers,” so some jewel-powered scribe must have traveled to the future, plagiarized the British newspaper, then traveled back so that Daily Mail content appeared on Cracked first.
This is one reason I love the site and wish more listicle-driven journalism would copy it. Here are three more.
1. Cracked lists contain words. Let us salute Cracked for bucking the trend of GIFs-as-opinions. Applied properly, GIFs are a terrific and fast-loading addition to online writing, making a simple Olympics story read like the Daily Prophet. Overuse of GIFs means you’re telling the world, “I don’t know how to express myself, so here’s a Real Housewife saying ‘Aw hell naw’ on an infinite loop. Enjoy!”
Cracked’s listicles are wordy scuba dives interrupted by simple graphics. Luke Harrington’s “6 Most Ridiculous Things People Claimed to Legally Own” tells fairly comprehensive histories of the Häagen-Dazs company, the Nashville Network, and the legal battle that ended when blue “was ruled to be a ‘functional color’ for frozen food, in that it implied ‘cold’ to consumers.” So that’s why Coors thinks I’m an idiot!
2. Cracked lists teach you stuff you didn’t know. The typical Pinterest or BuzzFeed community post is a collection of items or facts or cats—usually cats—that a person wants us to know we like. That’s fine, but I’m not going to apply that knowledge to anything useful, like a conversation at a party or an icebreaker in a hostage negotiation.
The most popular Cracked lists are often compilations of nerdy, forgotten science and history. In “7 Modern Conveniences That Are Way Older Than You Think,” three Cracked writers taught me that “dental drilling was in practice in parts of Pakistan as far back as 9,000 years ago,” that ancient Persians turned an irrigation system into an air-conditioning grid, and that the Vikings had welfare—literally hundreds of years before the Socialist reign of Barack Hussein Obama!
3. At Cracked, nostalgia starts before 1993. Now it sounds like I’m just deriding BuzzFeed, and I am, but I’m late to the party on this one: Last November, the Onion joked that BuzzFeed was “searching for a way to incorporate the news of CIA director David Petraeus’s career-ending affair into a short article about why the 1990s were great.” Within hours BuzzFeed had a list comparing Petraeus to Saved by the Bell characters. It was well done, but the fact remains that Saved by the Bell was a god-awful TV show, and that a lot of culture actually pre-dates the Clinton presidency.
In July, Cracked’s Chris Bell paid tribute to ’50s schlock director William Castle, who invented “features” no studio would ever copy. If you wanted a refund for Castle’s Psycho rip-off Homicidal, for instance, “you not only had to leave the theater during the Fright Break, you had to follow a yellow line to a section of the lobby that had been roped off and labeled as the Coward’s Corner, complete with speakers piping in the clucking of chickens, waiting there until the end of the movie while everyone else filed past you.” Cracked’s pop culture lists often point decades into the past, taking full advantage of our era of torrents and streaming and Netflix, when we can choose to dig up old shows or movies instead of re-consuming the stuff we liked in high school.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the listicle, and no one should feel shame for reading facts in numerical order instead of plowing through a #longread. But every listicle-maker starts with a choice. He or she could cobble together some popular items that will elicit a “like” or a “share” because they’re familiar, or he/she can tell us something we don’t already know. Cracked is what happens when the Internet tries harder.