I tried to mess with BuzzFeed earlier this summer. I created an account in their Community section and wrote a series of posts that were alternately silly, surreal, or sad, depending on my mood and the kind of point I was trying to make in that moment about the utter awfulness of the dull-eyed list culture that's pervaded the Internet, thanks in large part to the efforts of BuzzFeed. I had fun doing it, but I also ended the experiment slightly more depressed than when I'd begun it. Part of it had to do with the realization that my jokey posts, for whatever complimentary things some people had to say about them, were grains of sand on the endless beach BuzzFeed is building, and that there would be no feasible way for humor posts or inside-job takedown to even remotely match the pace with which BuzzFeed churns out content. [footnote]And what BuzzFeed is doing is very much "content" instead of, say, humor or essays or think pieces or something. It is slick beyond measure, designed to feel like nothing else but a cog in a machine.[/footnote] Their main site is a monster, they've got multiple offshoots, and the Community section now outsources content creation to users while still making money off what they produce by selling ads against it and reaping the financial benefits. I felt I'd made my point, and that I'd found ways to address what made me sad about list culture: the way it distracts us from real emotion; the way it encourages disposability, shorter attention spans, and emotional distance from the media we choose to consume or create; the way it can so easily lower our standards over time, boiling the frog until we can't remember the way things used to be. I was fortunate to receive some kind words from friends and colleagues for the posts, mostly in the form of them saying (basically) "Me too."
The thing is, it's not just a few people here and there who are growing disgusted with the braying, empty clickbaits that lack voice, tone, insight, a real sense of humor, or anything else that would make them worth reading. [footnote]Worth mentioning here that lists don't have to be empty-headed and bland, and that many authors out there can use the form in entertaining and enlightening ways. It's just that, traditionally (meaning in the past few years of the web), lists have been used to pick up traffic and nothing more. As someone who's actually written lists about, e.g., a TV show's defining moments, I can reassure you that there's nothing scientific to the assemblage of the list, and that the authors know that you will read the list and either feel rewarded that it includes something you'd have chosen or angry that it omitted something you'd have made sure to include, and that those emotions will hopefully in turn lead you to comment, share, and return as a regular reader. The sausage has to get made.[/footnote] It's more widespread than that. College Humor posted a pseudo-clickbait list in late August, a few weeks after mine, that used a headline to tease sexual images but then used text to shame readers into thinking about what they were doing. The Onion has been doing anti-BuzzFeed posts for a while (examples one, two, three, and four of many), and writers like Kaleb Horton and Joe Veix have been doing them, too. [footnote]It was Veix's brilliant takedown that helped galvanize my disdain for BuzzFeed's m.o.[/footnote]
Even The New Yorker has been exploring what list culture might mean, and this piece on the odious ListiClock is so good it deserves to be quoted at length:
The seconds flip by with such remorseless speed that it’s almost impossible to read the title of one listicle before it’s replaced by another. The result is an endless succession of half-glimpsed enticements: “18 Things You Probably Didn’t …,” “11 Reminders That …,” “29 Most Interesting …,” “20 Breathtaking Photos of … .” If you watch any clock for long enough, especially one that displays the seconds as they pass, a particular kind of despair sets in. Here, now, is a time that will never be again; and now—this exact moment—is already gone; and you are now one second closer to death, etc. The ListiClock, with its unceasing enumeration of enumerations, heightens this anxiety. It not only becomes an intense reminder of the ongoing depletion of our store of moments but also points to a means of depleting them that is, arguably, among the most fruitless of all: diversion unto death. This is probably not the kind of brand extension that Pepsi Next had in mind with their sponsorship of the ListiClock.
I wasn't at the forefront of anything. My percolating frustration got a boost from people like Veix, but it feels safe to say that Onion and New Yorker staffers have little or no social crossover with us. This isn't a random thing, and it's not a chain reaction. It's evidence of a growing fatigue with list culture and the transience it encourages. We're all of us tired of thin, forgettable, bland, unfunny, deadening, worthless links that don't do anything but provide a 15-second distraction from whatever we were just doing. It's not that these pieces take the form of lists that makes them bad; it's that those lists lack any remotely identifiable personality. They smell like stale air. They have no point of origin, no intellect, no insight, no worldview, and nothing to offer the reader but the promise of glazing over for a few moments. They're the worst kind of product because they have no reason for being. Their goal is to exist, period. They aren't meant to entertain, not really, not the way you think of being entertained. They're strips of GIFs and movie quotes, images from reality shows and location-based inside jokes (because if you can't be funny, you can always try to trick people into confusing nostalgia with humor).
We want an end, a break, a way through. And we have to take ourselves there.