I Wrote This Media Column. You Won't Believe What Happened Next

Media Guy Contemplates Upworthy, BuzzFeed and the Art of Clickbaiting

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At the recent White House Correspondents' Dinner in Washington, one of the big comedic targets was CNN. Both President Obama and host Joel McHale made fun of the cable news network, with Obama mocking CNN's widely criticized overkill coverage of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Credit: Kelsey Dake for Ad Age

"I think they're still searching for their table," Obama quipped in reference to the CNN staffers in attendance, and during McHale's routine a C-SPAN camera offered a reaction shot from CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer -- who had apparently found his seat, but did not look very happy. He had a thin-lipped, barely-there smile on his face, as if he was only begrudgingly enduring the ridicule.

Honestly, I felt for Wolf. He's been at CNN since 1990, one year shy of a quarter-century, and it's gotta suck having to watch his once-respected network become an easy joke (and a ratings-challenged one at that).

I also thought: Buck up, Wolf! Because pretty much all media, and the content business in general, is kind of a joke these days. Especially web-based media.

Consider, for instance, two of the current darlings of webby media, BuzzFeed and Upworthy. Both seem to embrace their seriousness and ridiculousness with equal gusto. They're both widely seen as shameless clickbaiters that will do anything to troll web surfers into visiting them.

Last Thursday, for instance, while BuzzFeed offered both "Scenes Of Pain And Anger As Turkey Reels From Coal Mine Disaster" and "South Korean Ferry Captain, Three Crew Members Charged With Murder" on its home page, it also served up "17 Songs That Made You Sob Uncontrollably as a Teen" and "Which Superhero Should You Hook Up With?" That latter post is a particular sort of joke, in that it's representative of a new-ish site staple, the BuzzFeed quiz, that's become a cultural and social-media phenomenon. (See also, "Which Mario Kart Character Should You Actually Play With?" and "How Embarrassingly Corporate Are You?" and "How Many Romantic Comedies Have You Seen?" and so on.)

Upworthy, meanwhile, tends to offer headlines and content that are more uniformly earnest -- e.g., "A Kid Stands Up to Literally Everyone in His Class" and "Her Mom Wanted Her to Wear a Dress to Prom. Here's What She Wanted to Say But Couldn't." But the site's packaging sensibility is itself the joke-about-Upworthy that Upworthy has embraced.

In fact, the shameless art of the Upworthy headline -- that annoying low-level cliffhanger shtick -- is such a joke that in January, as I reported on AdAge.com, a hacker named Snipe (aka Alison Gianotto) created something called Downworthy, a free Chrome browser plug-in that automatically "replaces hyperbolic headlines from bombastic viral websites with a slightly more realistic version." Some examples from Snipe's product description:

  • "Literally" becomes "Figuratively"
  • "Will Blow Your Mind" becomes "Might Perhaps Mildly Entertain You for a Moment"
  • "One Weird Trick" becomes "One Piece of Completely Anecdotal Horseshit"
  • "Can't Even Handle" becomes "Can Totally Handle Without Any Significant Issue"
  • "Incredible" becomes "Painfully Ordinary"
  • "You Won't Believe" becomes "In All Likelihood, You'll Believe"

Though Downworthy is obviously a play on Upworthy, Snipe also specifically called out BuzzFeed, ViralNova and The Huffington Post as clickbaiting offenders. "But people still click, so the trend continues," Snipe wrote.

And so here's where we are circa 2014 in the media world: While CNN gets shit for having become, over the years, increasingly shameless -- e.g., dwelling for weeks and weeks, for the sake of ratings, on a story it couldn't possibly move forward because the missing plane stubbornly insisted on remaining missing -- shameless websites that were shameless to begin with are ... rewarded for being shameless.

And yet we in the media and marketing worlds also take these shameless sites very seriously because they've become big businesses (at least by web-media/traffic standards and/or tech-valuation standards).

What does it mean for your media brand long-term if everybody sort of regards you as a troll? What does it mean for your media brand if you're the Boy Who Cried Wolf of the internet -- always promising more than you can deliver?

The answer might be that if pretty much everyone in media is a troll, if everyone is constantly crying wolf, it sort of doesn't matter.

Speaking of wolves, maybe it's time for Wolf Blitzer to learn from Upworthy and BuzzFeed et al. The trick is to just embrace your own punchline-ness.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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