Why the media -- and people -- love lists

Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates speaks to Parliament on May 28, 2013 in Canberra, Australia.  

The Forbes 400 is out and the annual write-up on the country’s richest residents still turns heads after more than three decades. But now it’s one of countless lists that go live daily on the web. They’re so ubiquitous that even the Forbes 400 is on a list of the best lists.

And it’s not like the content is all that surprising; Forbes says Bill Gates is the richest man in America again, for the 20th year in a row. So what’s the draw, if not suspense? According to Forbes wealth editor Luisa Kroll, people like to read about people.

“So many of the people at the tops of our lists are behind the companies that we’re buying from.  The Walmarts of the world, Microsoft,” Kroll explains.

Advertisers like sharing pages with those companies -- on glossy paper and the web -- but what about readers?

“Well, lists are like cotton candy -- ephemeral but satisfying,” says Sid Holt, chief executive of the American Society of Magazine Editors. “They have an appeal that is so immediate, so grabbing. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like a list.”

Holt says the list is an important tool for organizing information even if the information is not exactly important. Case in point: besides the 400 list, Forbes on its website also ranks the Top-Earning Dead Celebrities.


The Ultimate List of Lists:

Money: Forbes 400 - Lists the top 400 richest people in the United States.
Influence: Time's 100 Most Influential People in the World - The icons who 'define the world' every year.
Potential: Fortune's 40 Under 40 - The up-and-comers in the world of business.
Beauty: People's 100 Most Beautiful People - Celebrating celebrity beauty.
Style: Vanity Fair's 100 International Best-Dressed List - The most stylish people across the globe.
Generosity: Bloomberg Businessweek's 50 Most Generous Philanthropists - Measuring who's given or pledged the most over the past five years.
Smarts: Wired's Smart List - Fifty people who can change the world in big ways.
Cool: NME's Cool List - An annual list of who's doing the right thing at the right time.
Funny: Rolling Stone's 50 Funniest People Now - Who's making us laugh.

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