I admit it: I bought into some clickbait today and read about the top 11 (11!) whatevers in wherever on a popular travel site. I’m not linking to it because I’m not sending them clicks from the 3 people who will read this (yes, I can be petty). I read the list-article (or what is known, somewhat humorously, as a “listicle”), one through eleven, and some of the places looked interesting, but I came away feeling hollow. I had learned nothing about wherever except the names of some attractions and why they were famous. To write this, one wouldn’t even need to actually go to wherever. There was no indication that they had, anyway. And the travel writing community churns out plenty of these things daily. Its a big business and I hate it. So I tweeted something to that effect and people called me on it. I thought about getting defensive in that way we all do when we are questioned, but I didn’t have any reason to. I just wanted to explain, both to myself and others, what I see as the problem with travel listicles.
First off, listicles imply authority, at least tacitly, by enumerating a finite set of items, as if these items are all there is to it. But listicles require no authority of experience to create. Anyone can sit down and write a list for anywhere, with nothing but decent research skills, and that’s generally accepted. Aside from an authenticity issue, it may be an ethical issue. Think of the controversy Lonely Planet guidebook writer Thomas Kohnstamm revealed the he hadn’t been to all the locations he wrote about. Sure a listicle is less respected than a guidebook, but that doesn’t relieve the writer of their ethical responsibility to the truth. I just picture a dystopia where defunct/unseemly/dangerous attractions live on in listicles feeding off of each other for eternity. Its possible I’m crazy.
The other problem I see with listicles is that they encourage scanning, lazy reading and worst of all, “check-off” syndrome. Just because content is easy to create and consume doesn’t make it worthwhile. The fact is that listicles are easy, popular and SEO friendly. This is a problem not only because it means the economics of listicles displace more meaningful writing, but because they are often thrown together to round out content, to widen appeal, and, of course, get clicks. This approach to travel and travel writing is antithetical to meaningful, constructive travel habits. We tend to think of content in terms of meeting the audience where it is, because thats how you get clicks, but the fact is in travel writing you should inspire the audience to improve and broaden their worlds. After all, thats the point of travel (unless you’re on a cruise, in which case, list away). In this way listicles capture the most obvious aspects of place, but often fail to provide proper context. They frame destinations as, well, destinations instead of actual cultures, real places full of real people living real lives very different from our own. Look, these people surely got the idea to climb Mt Kinabalu from a guidebook, but they obviously didn’t understand the cultural significance of the site (or, alternately didn’t care, but that’s another topic altogether). To me, their behavior is suggestive of check off syndrome (and incredibly poor judgement). A killer photo on a famous mountain in an exotic place they can brag about? Check.
Lists, especially in the form of guides, are great examples of curation. Curation is fine, interesting, and useful (hell I use guidebooks all the time). It can be used as a skeleton upon which to build a much larger experience. I have no problem with curation and don’t want to give the impression that I think its wrong, but its not travel writing. That’s really the heart of my point. Writing carries the authority of experience, it explores relationships with the destinations and cultures, and exists to bring light to experience, to elucidate rather than enumerate the foreign. I admit, I love long form travel journalism for these reasons, but that’s obviously not the only way to explain a place, and its not the best way for everyone to learn. But travel journalism is not a choice between a 10 item list and a 5,000 word travelogue. Travel is great at inspiring creativity. Use it to find new, interesting ways of explaining travel. Use language to paint a picture of a place. Make it short and tight. Take a photo you love and fill in the details with words. Mention the places you enjoyed, of course, but put them into a context. Why were they great for the writer? Why are they good for the reader? What do they mean to the people who populate them? It may sound a bit cynical but at its core travel writing is usually a sales pitch for a place: don’t just list it, sell it. Its harder of course, but it creates a better, more meaningful experience for the reader, the traveler and the people they are visiting. That meaning is what travel is all about.