List obsessions: The rise and popularity of lists on the Web

Lists are everywhere. (Photo: Jay Korff)

From the helpful to the absurd, lists are everywhere. They tell us what heart-healthy foods to eat, which colleges won't break the bank and how to sculpt our abs in five easy ways.

The trend is seeped in our desire for order, from the necessary like "10 Best Tips for Retirement" to the silly "15 Funny Street Signs."

Lists are now ubiquitous. What to eat, what to wear, what to do and where to do it.

"There's a list for everything."

Italian novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco said lists can be found dating back to very early cultures, in an interview with Spiegel.

The list is born from a desire to make infinity comprehensible and to create order, Eco said.

While some lists today are quite inane, like "Top 10 Amazing Urinals," Eco reminds us that some lists are culturally historical: "There is a dizzying array [of lists, from] saints, to armies and medicinal plants, or of treasures and book titles. Think of the nature collections of the 16th century," he told Spiegel.

Today, the tallies reflecting our needs and desires have evolved well past the lists describing famous saints. They are rules, reasons, tricks and secrets that range wildly in reliability, depending on the source.

The Web encourages busy people to prioritize and that's why easy-to-digest lists have exploded online, said American University professor Amy Eisman.

Eisman was one of the first editors at USA Today.

"If it's big, thick paragraphs of text, your eye skips it and you say, ah, that looks like homework. I don't want to read that," Eisman said. "If it's a list with either numbers or bullets, it's really easy to absorb."

The key for consumers is to figure out which lists are credible and backed by good data and which ones are not, Eisman said.

For the ultimate Website for lists, visit