I Was BuzzFeed for a Couple of Days (and It Was Perfect)

I have always had an instinctive dislike of BuzzFeed, the new, sparky website seemingly entirely powered by faddish political opinions and years-old posts on Instagram which is more or less eviscerating traditional publishing and giving jobs to almost every journalist I can name.

Because this dislike was instinctive – because it was automatic – I decided I had better investigate the whole thing a little more.

Obviously such an investigation could have taken in some of the more substantial aspects of BuzzFeed’s increasing clout – including its increasingly heavyweight news reporting and foreign coverage, for example; but I decided fairly early on that this would be of little consequence. After all, even Medium, where this mea culpa was first published – a jumped-up Blogspot and little more – had enjoyed its share of ‘substantial coups’ in reporting terms.

There had to be another way. And luckily, this involved going back to what had made me dislike BuzzFeed in the first place: its lack of seriousness, its glibness, its seeming incapability of being anything other than frivolous and ephemeral.

So I hit upon an idea.

I would become BuzzFeed – in a human form – with only one Twitter account. And with no long-term strategy for growth. And with no prior warning.

Having been a fairly serious – perhaps even dour – guy on social media for a long time (with only the occasional sarcastic remark at the expense of some personage in the news coming under the classification of humorous or sardonic), I thought the about-face required might have interesting results.

And I suppose it did.

In my attempt to become a BuzzFeed, I decided to start using vast numbers of GIFs. And not just any GIFs; my GIFs would resemble those I saw most frequently when browsing the site after first being made aware of its existence – namely, lots of Taylor Swift and Jennifer Lawrence and not much else. (I promised myself I wouldn’t stoop to cats, or the visual representation of embarrassing personal truths, and I was probably right on that front.)

I started off with a topical GIF, which I thought was suited to the big political news of the day: Chris Christie had endorsed Donald Trump, and what happened next will blow your mind.

That seemed to go well. I had a few likes and retweets: and they constitute all an online-only concern like mine needed to care about (and thus an entire industry was built on bating people over social media, but I digress).

I followed this up with a declaration.

And a little sarcastic joke, so people knew I hadn’t completely taken leave of my senses.

And to the people who responded, I began liberally using those pixel-based embodiments of wit and sophistication.

And it worked in other situations, too.

I also made a faux-serious declaration, complete with GIF, of the apparent ethical standards my new direction compelled.

As you can see from the two likes – two whole likes! – people absolutely loved it.

So I carried on doing it.

And this truly seemed to be a childish joke worth perpetuating. I was enjoying my descent into rampant triviality, and apparently some of my followers were too. All was well.

But very soon, of course, the law of diminishing marginal returns kicked in.

Taylor Swift may still have been smiling, but I was not.

But still I persisted, soldiering on in pursuit of my social experiment – and also in pursuit of likes and retweets; I can never forget that motivation.

(Though occasionally I needed to explain exactly what I was doing.)

And so on, and so on.

Eventually some – I would, if I were inclined to be uncharitable, call them information superhighway reactionaries – did not see the funny side.

But of course, at least initially, I could only respond with yet another insincere GIF (it would have been rude not to, really).

Occasionally, the burdens of exclusively GIF-based communication took their toll, and I forgot to append the vital repeating image, the lifeblood of my new career online.

Then I started promoting a far more serious piece I had written that weekend – one which looked at C. P. Snow’s idea, as expressed in his Rede Lecture of 1959, of ‘the Two Cultures’ (with a small reference thrown in to the SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas) – and somehow I couldn’t think of many GIFs to go with that.

I decided, therefore, to bring matters to a head, and resolved to employ that other great mainstay of BuzzFeed’s reader-baiting content: the facetious poll.

I simply asked my 700 or so followers whether I had gone too far with all the GIFs. I added a deliberately self-deprecating option for ‘What GIFS?’, not unlike how new media companies attempt to adopt a knowing and friendly persona of their own.

I was a little surprised that so many people chose it.

Very surprised.

Because I had been trying really hard with the GIFs. I’d been GIFing my heart out. And still people didn’t know about it. It had simply passed them by.

Another challenge soon reared its head: that of remaining relevant and funny (the latter of which being a pretty difficult job for me at the best of times). Very quickly I began to run short of apposite GIFs.

And though some of my kind followers were charitable, it was a bit too much like hard work for my liking.

Meanwhile, the poll had been ticking away in the background – and it was clear that some shared my pain at ‘What GIFs?’ being the most popular choice (though for reasons which were diametrically opposed to mine).

And so it had come to pass: few people even noticed my GIF-based onslaught, and many of those who did had hated it.

So I did the only sensible thing: I tried – again like BuzzFeed – to pander to fan-ishness and celebrity-affection. Or at least I did so in one case in particular.

(Though I was slightly personally invested in this particular question.)

Yet the response was, more or less, silence.

No one cared.

Or if they did, they could not muster up the energy to vote (Wodehouse: ‘It was most infernally hot. As I sat in the old flat one night trying to muster up energy enough to go to bed, I felt I couldn’t stand it much longer’).

(And I also like to imagine that my followers in particular, who represent a greater concentration of the earnest and the politically-minded than is natural, may not have much of a sense of this ‘popular’ music in the first place.)

I thereafter gave up.

And there you have it. Being BuzzFeed is actually quite hard; it’s fundamentally unrewarding; and when the initial haze of increased internet attention wares off it can make a guy alienate his friends and comrades.

I suppose I’ll stick to passive advice for the generation of content in the future.