As the influence of online publications continues to increase, it’s now more important than ever that we remember the value of our own thoughts. Most of us through our online reading have sooner or later come across a provocatively titled web link that claims to have several “reasons” why a suggested reality is absolute truth. Some examples of such links are: “27 Reasons Parents Shouldn’t Be Allowed to Text,” “15 Reasons Why Dating in Your Early Twenties is Nearly Impossible,” ” 51 Times in 2013 Jennifer Lawrence Proved that She Was the Master of the Universe,” “19 Things People Swear They’ll Never Do Until they have Kids,” or my personal favorite, “23 Real-Life Struggles of Being Twenty-Three.”
These pages, and others like them, are children of the website Buzzfeed, a media outlet with the primary goal of generating web traffic. They succeed in doing this by producing webpages with lists of facts, opinions, and pictures of everything from drinking habits to Disney movies. If there is a news headline that is drawing eyeballs, odds are that Buzzfeed has an ironic list of short declarations related to that headline.
This, for the most part, is a harmless enterprise. Most of the pages are completely mundane. There are also endless other webpages that opt for shock value over content so as to increase their viewership. There is not anything essentially wrong with that. But what Buzzfeed often does is take it to a level that is far more insidious. In the same way that much of popular culture criticizes fashion magazines and gossip columns for making younger people feel bad about themselves because of their inability to match the lifestyle that is promoted in their publications, Buzzfeed can all-too-quickly flip from harmless banter into a slew of judgmental dictations about what one’s life should be like and why.
Buzzfeed appeals to college kids with its very current commentaries on popular culture and its many lists of “facts” in support of their claims. Elements of that offer many opportunities to be very damaging. Although Buzzfeed doesn’t have a body image agenda like fashion magazines do, it does promote negative ideas and biases with the knowledge that people will click their links in response to them. Such article titles include: “24 Reasons Husbands Can’t be Trusted to Do Anything,” “21 Reasons Why Exercising is a Terrible Idea,” and “This Woman Created the Most Appalling Dating Profile Ever and Men Loved It.” Their agenda is unbiased because their main goal is viewership. It also means they are willing to post whatever gets them traffic, even if it is negative.
Some of the supposedly positive pages encourage real people to be viewed in a very superficial light. Such articles include: “Which One of John Hamm’s Massive Bulges Are You” (an online quiz implying that your personality can be matched up with paparazzi shots of actor Jon Hamm’s crotch), “9 Reasons that Tim Gunn is More Articulate than You,” or “These Black Gay Dads and their Kids have the Cutest Instagram Ever.” Perhaps these pages are well intentioned, but they are also commoditizing individuals, races and sexual orientations. Zeroing in on one part of who they are dehumanizes them more than it elevates them. In poor Jon Hamm’s case, they literally zeroed in on one unit.
There is obviously a huge degree of cherry-picking in these examples, and it’s worth reiterating that Buzzfeed mainly just wants to generate traffic by drawing people in with titles and themes that will spark attention. Most of their stuff is fairly harmless, and there is no gain in reading this and then deciding to hate Buzzfeed. On the whole, however, it would be worthwhile for people to have a conversation about what the consequences could be when too much of one’s reading has been produced in a manner that tries to simplify rather than verify. The real victim here is the reader, who on some level capitulates to a viral social narrative instead of forming his or her own opinions.
This happens one “reason” at a time on Buzzfeed, such as in my favorite article, “23 Real-Life Struggles of Being 23.” One of these struggles is “When you go out you try to act like you’re still in college…. only to realize that your body can’t handle it like it used to.” Most people finish college around the age of 22. It’s hard to believe that one’s body would suddenly age to a point where they could not have a night out partying similar to what they were doing a year before, just because college ended.
The other “real-life struggles” are similarly dark, and paint a picture of post-college life as something negative and disappointing. A reader who is 23 feels somewhat condemned to this reality. Although there really are negative parts of anyone’s life at any time, the fact that a website would capitalize on a person’s darker feelings in order to gain viewership needs to be pointed out more than it is now. Perhaps most important of all, no one should need Buzzfeed to dictate what certain people, places, or times in one’s life should be like, no matter how many reasons they give. Better to actually live life as a 23-year-old than to let Buzzfeed decide what that time is like for you. At the end of the day, there will always be a form of Buzzfeed in our world, an outlet that tries to simplify and trivialize life’s many experiences. And that can be extremely entertaining. It can also be a horribly damaging pestilence if we allow it to kill our own thoughts, and replace them with theirs.