two of my readers!
I’ve been a little M.I.A recently, which was due to finals/me crying about finals/being on break and doing nothing but watching “Archer” and eating egg tarts. But no worries, I still have a lot to say and this time I’m introducing a new series! I wasn’t sure what I should do with non music or news material, but I decided to keep going with the food analogies and call it “Stew About It,” because ya know, beating a horse and what not. I’m just going for it until I run out of ideas (which will probably be very soon). Anything in this series will pertain to my various long-form musings about random things, and for the first post I want to talk about BuzzFeed and why critics of the site may be missing the point. Enjoy!
It seems like every day, I’m reading yet another article about how BuzzFeed’s rise signals the end of journalism as we know it, plunging us into an era where mindless drones, void of any journalistic integrity, occupy a barren digital landscape stripped of anything of substance, but filled with a barrage of listicles and personality quizzes.
Personally, I think people are overreacting: BuzzFeed has never claimed to be The Wall Street Journal, so why are we holding it to such high standards? And the last time I checked, WSJ, The New York Times, The Washington Post and a myriad of other “respectable” publications are still here. They haven’t been sucked into the same black hole of irrelevance that AltaVista and MySpace went to die.
So why are people freaking out?
I think we just assume that everyone these days is off reading garbage like BuzzFeed instead of The New York Times. And while sites like the Times have millions of readers, it is true that BuzzFeed is growing more popular, especially with the younger generation (does it make me sound old when I use phrases like “the younger generation”?). Whether you like it or not, that’s partly because BuzzFeed has an undeniably better digital strategy than a lot of the more established outlets, and I think that’s something to respect and learn from.
First, BuzzFeed has done a lot to make its site a community and not just a destination. Sure, not all of its quizzes are winners, but by having such quizzes and polls, users can feel like they’re contributing to the conversation and their voices matter. In fact, the famous white and gold vs. blue and black debate about “The Dress” got much of its traction from the BuzzFeed poll, which has racked up nearly 40 million views. Not too shabby. Furthermore, members can also post their own content that often lands on the front page and garners sizable views, furthering this idea of building a network or a community. People come back to the site because they value it, and because it values them.
Much of the other content on the site, like listicles and articles, also taps into things younger people care about and want to read, and writers talk about these subjects in an accessible way. There are tons of pieces about topics like college, being in your 20s, dealing with anxiety, etc., that’s bound to be relatable to The Youth (which vaguely sounds like the name of a punk band). Users feel like the writers are on their level and know what they like, instead of trying to talk down to them, which is more than what I can say for some other outlets.
BuzzFeed is also everywhere: Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and even Vine, and whoever is running these various social media accounts has a firm grasp on the cultural zeitgeist, at least for millennials. It thoroughly understands what is popular among younger people and enlists popular users on these platforms to collaborate on vines or pop up in BuzzFeed videos, which boosts their credibility and “coolness” among its audience. People know that BuzzFeed knows what’s up.
I’m not saying the editor of The Washington Post needs to buy a snapback ASAP and write about the best vape pens, but other more “respectable” sites need to recognize that while they’re busy criticizing BuzzFeed, they could be learning from it and adapting strategies like building a community, relating to a younger audience and using social media in a smarter manner.
Lastly, BuzzFeed is a great place for finding new sites, and pretty much every article has a host of links to other sites (as well as links back to its own content), for everything from recipes, online retailers, videos, you name it. It becomes the go-to place for people to visit in order to explore the Internet more.
You’re not off the hook, buddy
Secondly, a lot of what you see on Twitter and Facebook is based on your existing online habits. If you tend to like and click on articles called “10 Celebs Who Look Hotter With Man Buns,” over time, Facebook’s algorithm tailors your news feed so you see more content of that type. So, you’re not completely blameless here.
Also, to the people who can’t shut up about how there’s just so much nonsense online nowadays, what’s stopping you from reading a feature piece on The New York Times? No one is “Silence of the Lambs”-ing you, pushing you into a well and forcing you to read every single BuzzFeed article, OR ELSE. You could go and read an op-ed on the killing fields in South Sudan by Nicholas Kristof, but you don’t, do you? You go on BuzzFeed to figure out “What Does Your Poop Really Say About You?” That one’s on you, dude.
Furthermore, even when BuzzFeed does produce serious content, it tends to get less views. For example, on Jan. 27, it released “The Disappeared Trans Sex Workers of El Salvador.” The same day, it also posted “Women Wax Each Other’s Mustaches.” The former has garnered about 395,000 views (as of today). The latter? Almost 1.5 million.
To be fair, I watched and enjoyed both videos, although they are very different in subject and tone. But the point is, everyone’s always complaining about BuzzFeed only producing garbage and not doing any quality storytelling, but when BuzzFeed does actual journalism, people don’t watch it.
As an aside, people never mention that BuzzFeed has an entire news section!! That does good reporting!! Just because all you ever do on the site is look at crockpot recipes and personality quizzes doesn’t mean that’s all it has!!!
Adapt or die (dun dun DUN…)
I’m tired of hearing old, white people — who are probably wearing tweed jackets and under-tipping their waiters right at this moment — complaining about the state of journalism and the Web. Do people not realize that every time there’s a technological advancement or change, everyone predicts that it’s not going to last and cause society as we know it to deteriorate? That’s what happened with the creation of film, when television was invented and now, with BuzzFeed and the Web.
You only dislike it because you don’t understand it. But regardless if you’re on board with it or not, the Web will continue to grow, and if you wait too long before you realize it’s useful, you’re going to be left in the dust with your newspaper that no one reads and your typewriter that weighs 10,000 pounds. People just don’t read the news the same way anymore. Younger people are more likely to keep up with current events on Facebook, Twitter and BuzzFeed, but the point is, they still care about what’s happening around the world, so does it really matter how they go about it?
Furthermore, one big reason that some sites are getting less popular is they don’t know how to appeal to younger audiences, how to adapt their content to the web and build an online community. They didn’t realize the power of Facebook, Twitter or even Vine quickly enough, and now it might be too late, while the BuzzFeeds of the world take over. And I say, good riddance. That’s what journalism is: adapt or die.
When a tree falls in a forest…
And for people who say, “It’s not about digital strategy, it’s about the quality of writing,” I want to challenge you on that. Of course, at the end of the day, Content is King — but that’s only one part of it. At the core of it, journalism isn’t about propping up your own ego and using fancy SAT words — it’s about delivering news and educating your community. Therefore, journalism has to be a two-way street: You write the article to inform the audience, but to have anyone to inform in the first place, you have to build a community that will see it. One could argue that if your content is good, people will naturally flock to it. But on the Internet, when there are probably thousands or maybe millions of new web pages created every day, it’s hard for the little guys (a.k.a. those who are not BuzzFeed or The New York Times) to get pageviews even if it is good. Even if you succeed at the first part, writing a good article, failing to accomplish the second might be a graver error — if you don’t develop an online audience, you’re essentially talking to yourself in an empty room.
Girl, wrap it up
BuzzFeed is not perfect. I wish it would cut back on dumb quizzes and make fewer listicles whose contents are essentially gifs plucked straight from Tumblr. And sometimes I think its sensational articles titles are contributing to the black-and-white thinking people these days are prone to do (Really, are baths “literally the worst”? Worse than Johnny Depp’s facial hair??) It has room to grow, like many outlets.
But that doesn’t mean what it’s doing right now isn’t worth noting and learning from: It reels people in with fun quizzes, and gets them to stay with thought-provoking, in-depth pieces about Angelina Jolie’s public image and tennis match-fixing. Even if the percentage of people who are staying to read these long-ass features are smaller than those who only come to browse listicles, that’s still a substantial number. In my book, that’s a solid digital strategy.
So for everyone and their mothers (and grandmothers) who are bemoaning the downfall of the Web and journalism: Please calm down, get off your high horse and take a BuzzFeed quiz or something. You know you want to.