How Buzzfeed Feeds the World: A Short Essay on the Success of America’s Favorite Website

I’ve decided that Buzzfeed can be a dangerous place to visit, because you run the risk you may not ever leave. There are certain fanboy websites that I visit, and stay well beyond reason, because I invariably start clicking on links of interest, that lead to pages with new links to still more pages with new links and so on, until I am tumbling down the proverbial rabbit hole. Like most of you, I am sucked in by articles, essays, videos and pics, and with me in particular, they usually have to do with Sherlock, Shakespeare, Star Trek, Cinema, Sci-Fi, football, or Victorian England. We all have our unique sites that suck us in, but Buzzfeed is that unique site that seems to suck us all in. The website is undeniably one of the most popular sites on the internet for ALL of us. I’m here to figure out why that is…

Buzzfeed is a rabbit hole, like many websites are, but more remarkably, it also shares characteristics with the greater web in general, and might even be seen as a tiny microcosm of the vast macrocosm we surf everyday. The Internet has sprawled and stretched beyond our means of measure, and though we may suspect its reach, its grasp we may never know. Just as I explained earlier that I had visited a single site, but had used internal links to explore the sizable network of roads within it (with occasional trips abroad), Buzzfeed is an even larger fiefdom, nay kingdom, with a rich and varied landscape, a language all its own, and most importantly, a distraction with the power to suck you in permanently. It’s hard to visit Buzzfeed and visit just one article. There seems to be an unending wealth of articles aimed at attracting any one of us.

But what are the keys to Buzzfeed’s success? The first factor to take into consideration is the look and feel of the website. The site’s web design and name are both successful marketing strategies, and are not necessarily intended for the slow and patient visitor, who could care less about layout or design, color or font. That type of visitor is increasingly few and far between, and would stay regardless, so long as the content piqued their interest. No, Buzzfeed is looking for a more common patron, while still undoubtedly having a target demographic. That demographic skews younger, and responds well to color, graphics, and sensational headlines. That demographic is practically everyone between the ages of 15 and 50. That’s a pretty big demographic, and also happens to be the greatest number of consumers in the American economy.

The word Buzzfeed is a composite of two familiar words in the English language. Buzz can refer to the sound a chainsaw makes, the natural sound of a bee in flight, or more recently, something topical or sensational in the news that must be told. Buzz also evokes the noun, ‘buzzword,’ which is a word or phrase, often an item of technical or vocational jargon, that is fashionable at a particular time or in a particular context. It is often used pejoratively and is commonly dismissed as sensational and superficial. All of these definitions are extremely evocative and provocative, and when one sees the first part, ‘buzz,’ they undoubtedly think of something loud and exciting, something that forcefully cuts through something, and/or something trendy and exciting. The second half of the compound word is ‘feed’ and that has a few nuanced meanings. The most common definition of feed is the act of giving food to others, especially to animals or a baby, or of having food given to oneself. It is a source of nourishment, and it is vital and necessary to our health and wellbeing. The more spiritual definition of ‘feed’ is to also nourish or fortify someone or oneself, but not with food, but with faith, knowledge, intellectual rigor, artistic endeavors, ideas, and more. So what we see here is a compound word made up of two completely contrasting ideas. The first part implies something cheap, violent, sensational, flashy, and/or superficial, while ‘feed’ implies selfless attention and nourishment to another or to oneself. The implication seems to be clear—we are being forewarned that this website may offer both the lurid and the learned. What kind of demographic could include two polemics, and hope to hold the interest of either one, without alienating the other? Perhaps the design will tell us more.

The first thing to notice about the website design, is how tightly congested the Buzzfeed home page is—and every page, for that matter. The name of the site is relatively small, and occupies the upper left hand corner. Below the logo is a tool bar, divided into five different categories: News, Entertainment, Life, Videos, More. When you hover over each of these headings, there is a drop down menu, which gives more detailed subheadings. For instance, under News, you can choose World, Politics, Business, Tech, Sports, Longform, Ideas. Under each category, there are drop down menus, each with six to eight subtopics. In the upper right hand corner of the site, there are seven yellow round circles. Inside, they read: LOL, win. omg, cute, trashy, fail, wtf. At the end of the line of yellow circles, there is a red circle, with an arrow pointing up. By clicking on it, I learned that this is the label for ‘trending’ or ‘hot.’ When I click on each of the colored circles, it takes me to a page, where every story that earned that rating, are gathered all together. On the main page, I also have the option to scan the articles, and find the ones with the yellow or red ‘stickers’ attached. I can find those articles either way.

As for what the rest of the home page looks like, it is divided into three rows, of varying size. The row all the way to the left has small pictures positioned in the far left, while a title of the piece is just to the right of the pic. In the next row over, to the right, there are pictures roughly three times larger than the first row, but long, and positioned this time above the text. The heading at the top of this list reads ‘Buzfeed News.’ In the far right row, there is a heading that reads ‘Trending,’ above pictures whose size is approximately halfway between row one and row two’s pics. There are no titles above or below the far right pics, but each is numbered with red boxes in the upper left hand corner of the pics. When you hover above the pictures, their titles are superimposed over the pic. In total, there are ten trending articles listed. Below these ten articles, there are videos, with the title: ‘What’s hot in videos?’

The thing I came away with most, in evaluating the overall layout of the Buzzfeed page is this: each pic is unique and of a different color, so although it makes for a very congested and busy page, it is a tightly woven patchwork of color, and not unpleasing to the eye. If anything, it is pleasing in its enticing and promising aesthetic. Although tightly packed, each row is lined up evenly, which allows the reader to scan—presumably from top to bottom—easily glancing at the titles and their corresponding pictures, while occasionally stopping to open a new page to the selected story. As for the length of the page, I tried to scroll down, and it did that thing websites occasionally do, which is not allow you to reach the bottom, but keep supplying fresh stores of articles. The site simply kept filling in with more stories. The sheer volume of stories was considerable. It soon became apparent that Buzzfeed’s tight layout was not simply a marketing ploy to stimulate the eye, as often perpetrated in retail. Nor was it some kind of proprietary boast to convince visitors that they were actually getting a proverbial bang for their proverbial buck. This was a densely packed website, whose business seemed to be the business of churning out an endless supply of stories worth reading. But what exactly is the content and how could it possibly be appealing to a wide range of visitor?

The truth and brilliance of Buzzfeed cannot simply be found in its name or in the layout of its site. What fundamentally separates Buzzfeed from its competitors is its strict adherence to its core demographic; its bold and savvy choice to serve all its content up the same way, regardless of tone, purpose, or popularity; never taking itself too seriously; and most importantly, pillaging popular culture for the opportunity to target with surgical precision (some might call it pandering), the interests, shared experience and collective memories of a group. These groups—or target demographics—are often targeted in a way that appeals to their evolving sense of nostalgia; fluency in technology; preoccupation with romance; learned sense of entitlement; increasingly inflated egos; obsession with the latest trends and being the first to know; a shared love of lists; easily readable quirky and fantastic stories of fact that read like fiction; stories, lists, or quizzes about sacred and nostalgic childhood memories from each generation of reader; surveys from popular shows to determine which character you’d be; up to date celebrity news and fashion; stories regarding serious news and topical world themes, but never so in-depth or lengthy to alienate the average reader. Buzzfeed has the vision to recognize that world news is important to some, but may be rejected by those obsessed with Disney, let’s say, but never allows itself to draw the distinction between either one. THAT is the brilliance of Buzzfeed. By offering up all its content in the same way and with the same respect and reverence—regardless of how newsworthy or substantial it is—Buzzfeed is not alienating any of its readers, and allows for everyone to pick and choose the news and content they are most attracted to. Thus, the fan of artsy television drama doesn’t have to click on the article about Snookie or the Royal baby. Going back to layout, there seems to be more strategy in Buzzfeed’s packing of pages so tightly, other than just overwhelming the readers’ eyes with a dizzying number of stories. By democratizing content through uniformity of size, each article is as important as the next, and sheer volume dictates that there are dozens, if not hundreds of articles that seem tailor written to our needs. Therefore, a reader never needs to feel that they are overwhelmed by serious newstories…or trashy gossip articles…or foolish pop quizzes. They are all represented equally, and there is enough content for everyone to enjoy. If you’re not pulled in by one article, it’s almost certain you will by the next. And brilliantly, Buzzfeed ‘feeds’ its demographic well, by appealing to what they’re interested in: ourselves. More than anything else, Buzzfeed plays into its demographics’ sense of vanity. We are able to see ourselves in the content we read.

By looking at Buzzfeed, we are looking at ourselves, but not just ourselves at this age, but ourselves at ten…twelve…fifteen, twenty-one, or today. There are articles on the website that are aimed at our childhood hearts. There are articles about our past loves and obsessions: shows we used to watch, toys we used to play with, crushes we used to have, etc. Most importantly, Buzzfeed targets every generation with these articles. That means a reader in their late forties can read about bands from the late ‘70s and remember what it was like to be in high school. Readers born in the mid ‘70s can nostalgically read about Atari game system from the early ‘80s. Those born in the mid-‘80s can read about Pokemon toys they played with in the 90s.That same reader born in the ‘70s can find an article all about Grunge rock of the ‘90s that they listened to in high school, and later, college. And on…and on…and on. There is literally something for everyone.

Buzzfeed has a wide audience, and casts its net wide. You will likely not find any deep and insightful articles related to foreign policy, which are going to be overly informative and substantial. However, you will find articles about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for instance, and other noteworthy news stories and examples of American foreign policy. Because Buzzfeed is exactly like its name implies—something that will quickly and loudly feed you with soundbites of news and fun and quick articles that will entertain you. It will hit all of us, but it’s not meant to cut deep. It will feed, but most likely as a snack, not a full five course meal. It knows exactly what its audience wants and needs, and it delivers, perhaps better than any website today. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I, for one, will continue to read this fascinating and entertaining website.

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