Buzzfeed: The good, the bad, the obsessed, and the genius
Scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, I am hard-pressed to find a post that doesn’t link to, refer to, or mention a viral BuzzFeed article. More often than not, I find one with a catchy, relatable, or just plain weird enough title to make me want to click and read it. After half an hour, I forget what I was doing in the first place and now know 21 Things Miley And Her New Bleached Eyebrows Look Like. BuzzFeed is horribly sly and addicting like that. Do I want to see 15 Dogs Who Don’t Give A Crap About Your Carpet? Well not before I saw the link with the cute picture of a pug smiling at me.
Spending a lot of time scanning organized lists with funny gifs and colorful pictures has made me realize I now struggle to process long chunks of texts on my computer screen. Is this bad? Maybe. The way most internet users absorb information on their screens is by scanning and scrolling, and scrolling and scrolling. Lots of words are hard on the eyes, our busy schedules, and the temptation to follow a link away from those words. Is BuzzFeed merely confirming an obvious norm, making surfing the web more pleasurable and enjoyable? Or is it creating a culture with shorter-by-the-minute attention spans that cannot respond to anything that isn’t accompanied by cats wearing birthday hats?
As much as I want to read an in-depth article about Secretary of State John Kerry joining Iranian nuclear talks—no, that wasn’t sarcasm, I actually do—I am finding that I get too distracted by all the other information out there vying for my attention.
So, why all the lists, and the countless start-ups, blogs, etc. copying this format? BuzzFeed-style lists organize, categorize, simplify and humor-ize the anarchic abyss of information that is the internet. So what if I don’t really need to know 21 ways to suck at riding the subway. At least there’s this definitive list that I have control over reading.
What amazes me about BuzzFeed is its ingenious way of compiling such a great diversity of topics. Right next to Miley’s eyebrows, readers can learn Why You Should Care About GMO Legislation. Yes social media users, if you actually visit the BuzzFeed homepage, you’ll find loads of in-depth articles written by real, first-rate journalists. And that’s an interesting contradiction.
So, social-media friendly topics, internet-friendly formats, and serious journalism. BuzzFeed really has it all. But that’s not even the genius part. No, the genius comes in with the advertising. It’s no secret that advertising has been the biggest headache of the switch to online journalism. But BuzzFeed may just be onto something. Instead of displaying traditional banner ads, advertisers can pay to submit real posts which are then promoted on the site and can be and are shared by thousands of users. This goes against everything any journalist has ever been taught. Is it ethical? Does it cross a line? BuzzFeed creator Jonah Peretti doesn’t seem to be bothered by it.
"Some editorial content sucks, some ads are awesome," Peretti said in a New York Magazine article.
Ultimately, the audience chooses what content is successful. Ad or not, if the message is witty, weird, random, or engaging, users will share it. Then, the advertiser can track who shared the post using cookies and target them on other social media platforms.
Has reading countless short-form BuzzFeed articles shorted my attention span? Probably, but I prefer reading books and (gasp) real newspapers anyway. When will I have seen enough cat pictures? Never. BuzzFeed has its ups and downs. Yes, sometimes it’s annoying (stop telling me the 20 things I need to do in my twenties) and sometimes it’s hysterical. But there’s no denying that the viral-content machine is everywhere. And its not going anywhere anytime soon.