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Obsessions: Making the list

By Breeanna Hare, CNN
updated 8:37 AM EST, Fri December 23, 2011
Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber are two of the year's top trending topics.
Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber are two of the year's top trending topics.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The end of the year typically ushers in a plethora of "best of" and "top 10" lists
  • The volume has grown as our consumption has grown, aided by our digital culture
  • But the compulsion to categorize at the end of the year can actually be helpful

(CNN) -- If there is one thing more emblematic of the holiday season than tree trimmings or the loop of familiar jingles playing in public spaces, it is "the list."

They pop up all over the place (let's list them, shall we?): The lengthy to-do list, the guest lists for holiday parties, the wish list, and even, lest we forget, the mythical one double-checked by a bearded fellow in a red suit.

And then there are the year-end lists, which these days are something of a cultural obsession.

There's the standard "best of the year" version, an honor often bestowed on the major categories of movies, music, TV, books, media and news events, as well as the "top 10" roundup. From best TV moments to best celebrity meltdowns to Internet memes, as long as it happened in the preceding 11 months, we can recount it with a list.

During the rest of the year, we rely on lists to tell us what's selling and what we can look forward to. But as soon as Turkey Day leftovers have been devoured, our desire to categorize and rank cultural events hits overdrive. And with the vast variety we're being hit with these days, the tradition is almost comical. In the case of NPR's list of "The 20 Unhappiest People You Meet in the Comments Sections of Year-End Lists," it was decidedly (and purposely) so. But really, how many "best" things can there be?

"A lot of that has to do with the fact that we're just inundated with so much on the Internet," says Listography.com's Lisa Nola, (who, yes, keeps a lot of lists). "(It's) not just the books that are on The New York Times best-seller list anymore -- there are books that are self-released, or through Amazon, or (other) online means, and there's so much more for people to follow throughout the year. At the end, they sort of turn to their trusted sources to weed out the year's worth."

I've always relished these retrospective lists for precisely that reason, looking forward to them in the same way one looks forward to holiday cookie bake-offs and rum in their eggnog (or perhaps just the rum, in some cases).

"We're consuming so much, it allows us to whittle it down," agrees Paste magazine's Editor-in-Chief Josh Jackson, whose magazine's website hosts a "list of the day" series. This obsession with cataloging our year has "increased because the number of outlets has," he continues. "Rather than having six major music magazines and that's it, every website and every blog is coming up with their own take on things."

Hence why it's not a stretch to find year-end lists of the best singles, albums, artists and music videos. Yet as we try to sift through the cultural landscape, we may be creating a new kind of flood. Believe it or not, that could be a good thing.

Records of recognition crafted by mainstream outlets can be targets of criticism for being too predictable, repeating the same noted names and faces we've heard before instead of seeking to elevate new ones. With the abundance of cultural events we have access to today, there's also a greater opportunity for a more inclusive retrospective with so many specialized outlets joining in.

Author Umberto Eco, who examines lists in culture with his book "The Infinity of Lists," said in a 2009 interview with Der Spiegel that "the list doesn't destroy culture; it creates it."

If you embrace that line of thinking, as Listography.com's Nola does, then year-end lists can be seen as more than a holiday habit of ours, brought out at the end of the year along with the Christmas lights.

Even the ones that could be marginalized as lighthearted can be seen as making arguments of value. A decade from now, what would the top three Twitter trends of 2011 -- that would be Justin Bieber, followed by soccer/football and Lady Gaga -- say about us?

Whatever your response to that query, it's precisely the reaction we should be having, says Paste magazine's Jackson.

"Our job is to highlight the best of pop culture (but) there isn't an authoritative list.," he says. The point isn't to create a list that no one disagrees with. Rather, it's "to start a conversation."

For a lot of people, Nola muses, creating a list -- or weighing in on one -- accomplishes that.

"It's an interesting way of asserting their values through saying this is good and this is bad," Nola says. "I do that all the time. I keep a movie list and I give stars. There's something very powerful about rating something, and the Internet gives us all a forum to do that, to make our opinion matter. "

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