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Clickbait Literature: Why ‘Real’ Writers Can (And Should) Embrace Buzzfeed

Gigi Gastevich |
March 6, 2015 | 2:05 p.m. PST

Senior Arts Editor

Gigi Gastevich.
Gigi Gastevich.
I just read a story that made me cry. Would you believe the story is on Buzzfeed?

Losing My Boyfriend To Cancer At 29” is a personal essay about a woman who falls in love with a man who, early on in the relationship, is diagnosed with cancer. They fight the tumors together with chemo, tarot cards and “every means of Western medicine that presented itself,” but nothing works, and gradually, he withers away.

I’m familiar with the excruciatingly slow process of losing someone you love to cancer, and the story really hit home. I sniffled for five minutes in the middle of a crowded Starbucks, kicking myself for reading something in the first place that would make me so emotional.

That reaction contrasts completely with what most people know Buzzfeed for. The site is infamous for fluffy content like “13 Butter Sculptures You Butter Believe In” (trending on the front page today) and “These Are The Most Popular Panties In Your State.”

Not everyone loves the stuff.

“Shitty list articles and worn-out meme jokes aren’t a ‘thing’ — or at least, anything to be proud of,” says the above video’s author, “Maddox,” on hiswebsite. He also calls Buzzfeed “a cancer on the Internet” that draws readers “away from thoughtful, purpose-driven content that informs, to cheap, superfluous filler that distracts.”

Lately, though, I’ve started to think that “thoughtful, purpose-driven content” and Buzzfeed content are not exclusive categories.

Buzzfeed actually has a lot of interesting, informative, creative content, and it’s often devalued in a way it doesn’t deserve. Writers who criticize it should take another look at the pieces they’re so quick to dismiss. They’d find the content isn’t as vile as they think, and that elements of Buzzfeed pieces are pretty valuable in any kind of writing.

Writing for Buzzfeed is harder than you might think. In fact, Mark Marino, a writing professor at USC, requires students in his class to write Buzzfeed “listicles” (articles in list form) as assignments, because achieving Buzzfeed levels of snark and humor is a sophisticated task. (Marino himself published a Buzzfeed article called “10 Reasons Professors Should Start Writing BuzzFeed Articles.”)

“I consider [the irony in Buzzfeed listicles] a very complex form of thought,” he told me. “It’s a challenge. Sarcasm is like a rusty saw, and irony is really like a scalpel.”

Marino mentioned Chris Rodley as a writer who’s done a great job mastering that tone to convey something thoughtful. Rodley has published three Buzzfeed articles linking high-level art theory to pop culture phenomena: “Post-Structuralism Explained With Hipster Beards,” parts 1and 2, and, my personal favorite, “Art Theory Explained With Kim Kardashian’s Instagram Feed.”

Instagram, @KimKardashian.
Instagram, @KimKardashian.

For instance. “[Theorist] Joseph Beuys said everyone can be an artist,” says Rodley above a photo of Kardashian slathering her pout. “Even the act of putting on lip balm can be a work of art ‘if it is a conscious act’.”

“I think it’s a cultural moment, explaining things with other things,” he told me, adding that using “lively metaphors” to explain complex concepts isn’t a new idea — academics have been doing it in one form or another since Socrates — but that doing so on Buzzfeed is a “rich area to explore,” since Buzzfeed pieces reach so many people.

Not only are Rodley’s pieces hilarious (at least to an art geek like me), they also spread critical art theory to people who would never have experienced it otherwise. And it’s not like his Buzzfeed pieces are replacing the original academic texts that inspired them, which is a common fear among Buzzfeed’s critics.

“Obviously these [articles] aren’t meant as a replacement for reading the authors, or as an accurate synopsis of their work,” says Rodley on hiswebsite about the poststructuralism-beards pieces. “Think of it more like a Cliff Notes summary of a Cliff Notes summary of a C-Class Wikipedia article, that you read for an essay as a freshman and are trying to explain four years later after a couple of bong hits.”

And that goes for all viral Buzzfeed pieces attempting to touch on something important — they’re not meant to threaten or take the place of more substantive content. Rather, they pique readers’ interest in topics they never would have engaged with before and encourage them to dig deeper.

Another criticism of Buzzfeed-style pieces is that it’s impossible to connect with them on as deep of a level as you would with a piece of traditional literature (say, me when I sobbed my way through “Wuthering Heights.”)

My friend Natalie Morin disagrees. As a Buzzfeed fellow, she published listicles like “29 Artists From The 19th Century Who Were Total Knicker-Droppers” and “22 Ways Your Best Friend Is Actually Your Significant Other,” the latter of which got over three million views and 825 comments.

She says that the relatable humor and easy share-ability of Buzzfeed pieces create reader engagement that’s real and valuable.

“When someone is engaging with you in that humorous, snarky way, it’s like how you talk to your friends,” she told me. “On the Internet, when you read something like that, you feel like you’re privy to some kind of joke with the author.” Readers feel connected to the author, and then they can share that connection with their friends.

Even though her best friend article isn’t “super serious,” she said many people’s reactions to it came from places of real emotion: “I got people on Twitter saying, ‘Wow, you really nailed it. You completely read my mind,’” she said.

And let’s remember, not everything on Buzzfeed is written in this playful listicle vein. Some pieces, like the cancer story that made me cry, are quite serious and genuine.

Morin’s friend Matt Ortile wrote a longform Buzzfeed piece called “Why I Ended A Perfectly Fine Relationship,” which weaves together bits from Roland Barthes’ “A Lover’s Discourse” with a touching personal narrative about Ortile breaking up with his boyfriend. Like the cancer piece I read, it’s strong because Ortile chooses to be so vulnerable in the narrative.

What’s surprising is that according to Morin, her and Ortile’s pieces got very similar reactions from readers. “In essence [the comments are] the same idea,” Morin explained. “Like, ‘oh, that really spoke to me.’ Or, ‘My significant other and I are like this.’”

“The serious, more heartfelt content and the snarky, pithy content still relates to people,” Morin said. “In different ways, maybe, but if someone speaks to you on the level that you feel thankful, you feel understood…I think that you can achieve that with both forms.”

Can content really be called “superfluous” if it pushes readers feel deeply and make real connections? I don’t think so.

As Buzzfeed has come to dominate my generation’s media stream, many publications have tried to adapt to that format (as Gawker’s founder Nick Denton calls it, “pandering to the Facebook masses.”) Many of those attempts have been halfhearted, reluctant and at times just ridiculous, because to many venerable writers, trying to appeal to the “Facebook masses” smells like selling out.

But there’s no reason content creators can’t take lessons from what works on Buzzfeed and apply them to their own work without losing creative or journalistic integrity. Take for example journalist and creative writer Lyndee Prickett’s work “We Are Angry,” a piece of multimedia online fiction that taps into the Buzzfeed audience.

Prickett fused a fictional narrative about a rape occurrence in India with facts and media from real rape cases to make “a compendium on the topic of the rape crisis in India.”

It’s engrossing, interactive and packaged into small bits that read very much like a Buzzfeed article. Prickitt uses that form to not only engage her reader, but to raise awareness on an important and very charged topic, introducing the subject to people who might never have encountered it otherwise.

“To me it’s the future,” she said. “Buzzfeed is great. People only have to commit two minutes of their time to it. Even if a novel hits the bestseller list, the numbers are absolutely infinitesimal compared to the numbers of a video that goes viral.”

Or look at writer Allie Brosh’s popular site Hyperbole and a Half, where Brosh uses humorously crude MS Paint-style drawings interspersed with short bits of text to tell stories that, despite their simple appearance, confront large issues.

For instance, “Adventures in Depression” is an honest look into what it’s like to be sad when you don’t have any reason to be. It’s resonated with thousands of people, myself included, and to date the story has over 4,000 comments thanking Brosh for speaking about a topic that so many people are afraid to bring up. By using a Buzzfeed-like writing style that infuses her pieces with brevity and humor, Brosh can discuss difficult subjects in a way that really connects with people.

At the end of the day, criticism of Buzzfeed is rooted in fears of losing the best parts of the writing we did before it. I understand that fear: you can’t capture the nuances of a masterpiece in a single brushstroke. But Buzzfeed doesn’t pose a threat to the survival of these older forms.

There’s no reason the two formats can’t coexist, or even overlap to create hybrid pieces like “We Are Angry” that combine the interactivity of a Buzzfeed article with the substance of a traditional piece of writing.

And there’s no reason to treat these newer forms of Buzzfeed-style writing as less valuable than their predecessors. They bring a whole new set of benefits — most notably interactivity, outreach and engagement — to the table.

Given the pervasiveness of Buzzfeed content, we can assume at least the format is here to stay; the site has found a model that resonates with today’s culture consumers. Traditional writers — academics, creative writers and journalists alike — may as well stop fearing Buzzfeed and start unlocking the potential it has for their own creative endeavors.

Contact Senior Arts Editor Gigi Gastevich here.



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