Tag Archives: media

What the $50m BuzzFeed investment says about the modern-day media

13 Aug

Are listicles, gifs, videos and quizzes replacing quality long-form journalism?

What started out eight years ago as a hub of cat videos, listicles, trivia, gifs and quizzes has recently been valued at $850m (£506m) following a $50m investment from a US firm.

            Californian venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz has given BuzzFeed a pivotal boost in the form of a $50m (£30m) investment, which now values the internet sensation at more than three times as much as the Washington Post. The firm’s investment in the site has grown from their prediction that BuzzFeed is set to become a top-level digital company.  

News of the investment was released on Monday

News of the investment was released on Monday

            The funding signals another push in the direction of online media and confirms much of what we already know about the digital shift. The advent of digital journalism is well and truly underway and print is fast becoming a sinking ship. While newspapers are sure to become a dot on the horizon in the next few decades, websites, blogs and social media outlets are the new kid on the media block- and they’re here to stay. 

            BuzzFeed is one of the most renowned websites for capitalising on the digital shift. Although the website has recently hauled in hundreds new recruits in an attempt to report on mainstream news and features (politics, the Ebola outbreak, the Gaza conflict) it’s best known for creating breezy content that’s sharable across online platforms. 

Buzzfeed creates material that's easy to digest on laptops, mobiles and tablets

Buzzfeed creates material that’s easy to digest on laptops, mobiles and tablets

            Many of my Facebook friends and Twitter followers share BuzzFeed articles on a daily basis. They’re often posted with a reluctant disclosure that ‘I don’t normally share BuzzFeed stuff, but…’ and ‘This is probably a bit kitsch but I couldn’t resist sharing…’ followed by a listicle that glamourises, romantises, humourises or victimises the daily struggles and predicaments of a particular subgroup. Take, for example, ’27 Incredibly Annoying Things People Do To Bartenders’. It’s irresistible clickbait for anyone, anywhere who has ever worked behind a bar and prompts numerous discussions about which number made them laugh, which number reminded them of that hellish Valentine’s Day shift in 2008 and which number was so accurate they had to copy and paste the link and re-post the article themselves. 

            These articles typify many aspects of digital media and the kinds of things that consumers want to see when they browse online. Aside From A Questionable Tolerance Of BuzzFeed’s Tendency To Capitalise Their Every Headline (each to their own) the rise of BuzzFeed confirms our thirst for sharable, easily digestable, succinct, delightful, humourous, day-enhancing material. We also seem to like multi-media platforms that combine gifs, photos and videos with listicles, quizzes and articles. (BuzzFeed’s ‘Trending’ bar consists entirely of captionless photos.) 

Buzzfeed's header

Buzzfeed's trending bar is image-friendly

Buzzfeed’s trending bar is image-friendly

But I can’t ignore the fact that a website that has a ‘LOL Feed’, a ‘Cute Feed’, an ‘OMG Feed’ and a ‘WTF Feed’ is being dubbed as the next big thing on the media scene. I don’t doubt that BuzzFeed deserves such a title- it has, after all, successfully tapped into digital trends and consumer demands- but I worry about what the potential accession of BuzzFeed as a dominant media company says about the nature of our consumer demands in the first place. 

            Articles such as ’Weird Little Things All Couples Do’, ’23 Things Women Are Tired of Hearing’ and ‘21 Celebrities Who Prove Glasses Make Women Look Super Hot’- besides demonstrating a short-sighted willingness to tarring all couples and all women with the same brush- are simply self-justifying articles that social media users can regurgitate to legitimise how they’re feeling at any given moment. It’s closed-minded material that tells specific subgroups how to feel about other subgroups, and it’s not open for discussion.

            Then there’s the fact that listicles go against every English student grain of my being. BuzzFeed is like a giant slap in the face to everything I was taught at A-Level: it’s taking the numbered paragraph plan from my notes and forgetting to bother with the final product. Writing a listicle is much easier than crafting a nuanced, comprehensive, articulate, well-structured column consisting of those long-forgotten things we call ‘paragraphs’.

            But BuzzFeed is capable of winning over even the most orthodox among us. As a travel writer, ‘16 Encounters That Prove The World Is Smaller Than You Think’ totally got me clicking. As a cat-lover, I’m also lured in by ’13 Iconic Movies Improved By Cats’ and as a feminist, I really enjoyed ’18 Inventions By Women That Changed The World’. BuzzFeed has tapped into the likes and dislikes of just about anyone and is writing irresistibly light-hearted entertainment pieces that resonate perceptively with those interests. 

            We’re yet to find out whether the venture capital investment will bear fruit and BuzzFeed will become the website to reign over all. Perhaps if BuzzFeed is going to rise above conventional media companies it’ll have to ditch its associations with listicles anyway. But here’s a thought for the meantime: indulging in a listicle is great, every now and then, so long as it doesn’t replace an ability to read and write insightful, challenging and cutting-edge debates that don’t start every new point with a number. Call me a traditionalist, but I like to dream that the light-hearted side of the digital shift can move forward without casting a shadow on our good-old friend, quality.

On Living To One’s Self

4 Apr

On reading William Hazlitt’s 1812 philosophical essay ‘On Living to One’s Self’ recently, it occurred to me that what he had to say over two centuries ago has great relevance within today’s postmodern world.

Hazlitt’s instructive and persuasive article proposes to its readers a way of living that consists entirely of living to one’s self. Hazlitt asserted that by living a detached, contemplative and somewhat secluded lifestyle an individual will experience all the benefits of life, free from the intrusive pressures of society. 

Of course Hazlitt’s piece is not entirely transferable to the world we live in today. He suggested:

‘He who lives wisely to himself and to his own heart, looks at the busy world through the loop-holes of retreat, and does not want to mingle in the fray.’

But in my eyes, one can live wisely while engaging with the world. As an English student I understand how tempting it must be to retreat to a scholastic and literary world and to immerse oneself in books. But as a history student I also understand the importance of cultivating my own opinion through active participation, engagement and debate. Learning about the past becomes null and void if it is reduced purely to reading and accumulation of facts. Lessons from the past must be judged, compared and contrasted with the present in order to enrich our understanding of things as they are. The true mark of a great historian is someone who learns about the past and uses this knowledge for a multiplicity of life lessons. Unlike Hazlitt, who ‘lived in a world of contemplation, not of action’ (his own words) historians take pride in mingling in the fray: in jumping enthusiastically into the debate.

In writing this blog entry I raise issue with Hazlitt by doing exactly what he wrote against: engaging and acting.

Now discontinuities aside, ‘On Living to One’s Self’ is an astounding essay that showed me a different perspective on life and on living. It is a perfect example of the way in which my joint honours degree combines literature and history in a way that forces me to think about the world we live in now. Here is a selection of the best bits from Hazlitt’s work, and why I think they still have things to teach us today.

‘He does not fret himself to death with trying to be what he is not. He relishes an author’s style without thinking of turning author.’

How many times have you heard girls say things along the lines of ‘I wish I had her stomach!’ or ‘I WANT her shoes!’? Hazlitt would be turning in his grave if he knew the envious and destructive nature of youth culture and the media as it is today. We would be a much happier society if we learnt to embrace contentedness: that’s being exactly who we are without feeling the need to adjust to fit in, without the constant assessment of ourselves in light of how we may or may not be perceived. Hazlitt preached the art of detached appreciation: acknowledging what other people have or do without immediately wanting it for ourselves. Being happy cannot be bought: it is a learning process, and it is a skill. There will always be more money, more clothes, more cars, better jobs, better food, better holidays and so on. The true test of living to one’s self is learning to be content with what is enough, and what makes you truly happy. The real test of living to one’s self is learning when to stop.

‘He does not survey the objects of nature as they are in themselves, but looks asquint at them to see whether he cannot make them instruments of his ambition.’

On living to the prerequisite standards of society one’s views of life become increasingly subjected and distorted. We understand, and even care less about those around us and become obsessed with personal gain: ‘what’s in it for me?’

There is not a more mean, stupid, dastardly, pitiful, selfish, spiteful, envious, ungrateful animal than the Public. It is the greatest of cowards, for it is afraid of itself.’

As far as this quote goes, it seems not much has changed since 1812. In fact, the state of the public has got worse. Sociologist Alain De Botton contemplated postmodern society: ‘Locked away in our private cocoons, our chief way of imagining what other people are like has become the media’ Instead of actually going outside and living, we sit indoors watching television, scrolling through our mind-numbing Facebook newsfeeds, Twitter updates and Instagram photos, the list (unfortunately) goes on. Social media has become one of the most used and probably least accurate tools for judging other people and the world outside of our own. The public is undeniably afraid of itself because the public is afraid of what the public may or may not say. The only answer left then, if one is to live to one’s self, is learning not to care.

The idea of what the public will think prevents the public from ever thinking at all, and acts as a spell on the exercise of private judgment.’

I watched a Derren Brown programme a few months ago that set up a social experiment to test the dynamics of group behavior. It proved that given the chance, while individuals were masked within the muddy waters of group identity, Brown’s audience went so far as wishing pain and suffering upon an unknown individual. To me, this sounds familiar to the audition stages of popular talent contests like X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent. (The latest winner of Britain’s Got Talent was a dog, which doesn’t say much about the caliber of our national standards) A panel of pretentious B-list celebrity judges faces a stage with the ability to facilitate or deny a contestant’s path to fame. The decision-making process is immingled with the seemingly raucous audience who pander to sob stories, contestants who are strikingly old or young, funny contestants and those who they would simply like to crawl into bed with. Unfavourable contestants are mocked, humiliated, chewed up and spat out not only in front of a large crowd but eventually on national Saturday night television. Irrespective of talent these shows are confirmation enough that society is a self-cleansing, self-vindicating machine that as Hazlitt suggested, casts a spell on private judgment because Simon, Louis or Cheryl are there to do that for us.

Given the progression of technology and social media in post-modern society I am unwilling to suggest that Hazlitt’s essay in its entirety is applicable to the world today. Social media and television do have fantastic and astonishing benefits. But I think that to answer the question ‘How do I live to myself in the world today?’ one must consider a moderated Hazlitt. It requires balance and discipline to avoid becoming preoccupied by what society wants and if we aren’t careful, we run the risk of becoming the public’s next self-directed project of uniformity.

*If you enjoyed the impassioned rant against TV talent contests, watch Charlie Brooker’s episode of Black Mirror ’15 Million Merits’, a major inspiration for this blog entry.



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