Can We Guess Your Content Consumption Habits Based on Your BuzzFeed Quizzes?

The more “open” and “connected” our online worlds become, the less emphasis on quality there seems to be. Think about what an article needed to go through to be published decades ago. Hours of editing and desk editing and layout and styling. And when it was finally out to see the light, it was there forever.

The focus then was on quality, the privilege of being published and read by the public.

Is being published now a privilege?

In her book The People’s Platform, Astra Taylor argues that websites like Buzzfeed’s primary job is to “game social networks”. She calls viral posts content-posers, only pretending to be the content readers are used to in the traditional sense. Published interactions, if you will.

These website are so full of content. Full of content is a strange sentence to say, because “content” itself is an abstract term. But they mainly depends on user and staff-generated listicles, the more and sillier the better, because that’s what people share. If it works, it’s successful.

Taylor puts it in a way that compares journalism as an industry to something that almost lost its ground and is starting to follow were the users want to go instead of lead the cultural discussion:

“We are entering a new age where every aspect of a creative artifact’s life can be quantified, measured, and analyzed. The filter bubble and journalism have collided: a generation of newmedia moguls targets its products to respond directly to readers’ whims, scouring search engine trends, poring over most-e-mailed lists, and crafting content.”

Though it might seem harmless to have these kinds of light websites, the effect can turn around and hurt the quality of web content with every bar the user (even unintentionally) lowers. The effects are already starting to show in how mainstream media is changing their game.

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 2.38.59 PM

Several mainstream media are being called out for not covering important happenings now, and not until the criticism goes viral that these media outlets pay attention, because they are becoming more and more viral-oriented, rather than quality-oriented.

Big publications want a part of the cake too, if following viral content is directing consumers to Buzzfeed, get on it! Everyone wants to eventually make money, so Kim Kardashians hair shade becomes breaking news.

I agree with Taylor that vitality encourages creativity and that Buzzfeed truly managed to crack the “viral code”. After all they have a huge presence on the web that is mostly dependent on social sharing. Her arguments, however, make me more worried about the future of content as a journalist, and having to follow what Justin Beiber is having for breakfast, because that is all the content the audience wants to know.

Jay Rosen says it better in his book What Are Journalists For?

“The question mattered because certain ideas about the press follow from the view of the public they contain. If the public is assumed to be “out there,” more or less intact, then the job of the press is easy to state: to inform people about what goes on in their name and their midst. But suppose the public leads a more broken existence. At times it may be alert and engaged, but just as often it struggles against other pressures—including itself—that can win out in the end. Inattention to public matters is perhaps the simplest of these, atomization of society one of the more intricate. Money speaks louder than the public, problems overwhelm it, fatigue sets in, attention falters, cynicism swells. A public that leads this more fragile kind of existence suggests a different task for the press: not just to inform a public that may or may not emerge, but to improve the chances that it will emerge.”

We Tried, But It’s Viral Now

Virality. A word spell check still refuses to recognize, no matter how widely used it is now. “Viral” often refers to infection, disease. But now also refers to quickly spreading content, infectious content, if you will.

But such a word presumes that there is no control over the spread of content, that it just happens, which isn’t true for most cases. Henry Jenkins argues in Spreadable Media (p. 20) that when we share content we actively choose to spread such content to our contacts on social media, via email or even play it for someone, we carry that content outwards of our networks to other networks through sharing.

But how much choice do we really have in sharing those short funny videos for example? Can we articulate or explain why we do?

One example to measure our ability to answer such question to is the famous “Charlie Bit My Finger” video.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OBlgSz8sSM]

Back in 2007, a family in England posted the home video above. It’s a cute moment between brothers, three and one year olds. It was meant to be shared between family and friends, and it wasn’t until years later that views started doubling daily, until it became one of the most viewed videos on YouTube with more than 800 million views.

What happened?

People shared the video on every website, and they shared it because people where sharing it, and so on and so forth. No one knows who was “patient zero”, probably a famous website or a media outlet, that led to the video’s outbreak.

In an interview, the dad who posted the video commented on the videos popularity.

“I had to make a decision: Is this something that we accept is us and do something more with or is it something we just park and say, ‘That’s really nothing to do with us,’ and then everybody else will be exploiting it and making money from it?”

The thing is, he didn’t realize it wasn’t even his decision anymore. The video has simple gone viral and there was no control over it. Years later in 2015, the story is still going on, and people are wondering what happened to the Charlie Bit My Finger boys.

They have found fame, YouTube revenue and became part of our culture, in a way. Time’s magazine refers to  watching the video now as “nostalgic”, all based on something millions of us do everyday, record our kids doing something funny. No one can really list a formula other videos can follow to assure a similar success, it was just something that “went viral”.

I agree with Jenkins in how he explains the difference between virality and spreadability, but viral content isn’t necessarily commercial content desperately clutching to the advantage of public participation, even if that is the case lots of times, it’s only because when it works, it really does get uncontrollably viral, and there’s no explanation for it except that everyone thinks it’s “interesting” whether it is a toddler biting his brother’s finger, or a Korean pop song.