Am I the only person who gets frustrated with these viral feel-good sites?
(Forgive me in advance, as I will admit my bias first and foremost: I am a cynical person at times.)
But there is something sincerely irking about sites like Upworthy or BuzzFeed that tell me to feel things 24/7 as I’m scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed and Twitter timeline. That my faith in humanity will be restored if I just click the link. As Mary Elizabeth Williams of Salon.com jokes, “BuzzFeed, by the way, is now editorially obliged to Restore Your Faith In Humanity at least once a day. It’s the adorable Upworthy video in which a small child says something wise. And it’s usually accompanied by a dare from the person who posted it to grab your tissues, because there’s, like, no way you can get through this thing without it RAINING ALL OVER YOUR FACE.”
While social media has become the fastest way to find out about breaking news and stay up to date on social issues, it seems like all I’m finding out is that BuzzFeed has the 25 gayest pictures of Pope Benedict XVII and Upworthy thinks I’ll NEVER believe what they have to share: “He’s Speaking. She’s Playing. And I’m Just Over Here Trying To Pick My Jaw Up Off The Floor.”
To break out a little bit of communication theory for you, if you know anything about agenda-setting theory, it means that if an issue is covered more often and emphasized as important by the media, the audience will believe it to be more important. We’ve heard numerous times before not to believe everything you read on the Internet. These days, though, it’s less about believing everything you read and more about whether you take viral social media content at face value. If content goes viral, it’s right in your face. All the time. So do these sites mean to imply that valence is directly correlated with value?
As college students, we see Upworthy and BuzzFeed articles invading our Facebook newsfeeds and Twitter timelines on a regular basis. In my own social circles at least, these spread more frequently than legitimate news sources because these sites make the saccharine go viral. They know what it takes to get people’s attention and these articles and videos spread like wildfire across social networks. Thus, BuzzFeed’s quirky lists of GIFs and Upworthy’s videos about things that matter are what end up taking center stage on social media.
The unfortunate truth is the world is not quite what these websites make it out to be. When we take in our world through social media, we’re experiencing it through a filter.
As much as I’d like to believe so, the world cannot be summed up in a BuzzFeed listicle or an emotionally moving Upworthy video. When this is the content that’s dominating my newsfeed, am I laughing at the ever so relatable BuzzFeed articles? Probably. Am I moved by the Upworthy video that shows the good in society? Maybe. But if that’s all I’m taking in, my worldview has become quite narrow.
“She Didn’t Think The Love Of Her Life Was Romantic Enough. Then She Looked Out Her Office Window.”
These are the things that matter? The ones I should be passing on?
What happens if these things that matter and 27 Listicles That Apply To You Regardless of Your Individual Identity become our filter? Betabeat’s Ryan Holiday says that sharing these articles is all because “we don’t like to feel cognitive dissonance or complexity. [Companies like Upworthy have] adapted by never letting us feel anything but nicely packaged happiness.”
We like to feel good. Sharing Upworthy videos makes us feel good. Reading the “news” on BuzzFeed through GIFs makes us feel good. These sites live by the theory that if it isn’t fun or meaningful, it isn’t worth consuming.
Instead of learning what’s going on in our world, we’re bombarded by content of “beautiful photos that will CHANGE YOUR LIFE” day in, day out. Yes, that’s the definition of viral content. But there’s a different between silly memes all over the place and videos and articles telling me that these are the most important things in my life today. As one of our classmates shared in the comments of another’s post, there’s a Tumblr that exists to mock Buzzfeed’s lack of content when there aren’t any GIFs. And yet it is considered a journalistic entity.
So…this is journalism?
What it comes down to is that Upworthy and BuzzFeed operate as businesses by promoting fun, optimistic content to get clicks. “Our generation wants to know what is going on, but we want it to be fun,” Upworthy cofounder Peter Koechley said in this New York Times article. Holiday attributes this to the fact that hopelessness is just not shareable; passionate feelings, like anger and excitement, are what drive virality. Valence seems to determine value (at least on the Internet) and virality. But if this becomes society’s standard, what then?
The sad truth of the world is that not everything we experience in this lifetime will be deeply meaningful or fun or worthy enough of passion to drive action. I will be the first to admit that I don’t watch the news very often because it depresses me to see the state of the world. But we need the good AND the bad. We need the “Humanity Blows Me Away Sometimes”-type posts and the silly BuzzFeed listicles AND the honest, frank look at the world. Sometimes we need a pick-me-up. Sometimes we need to get a good hard look at the world and admit that it is really screwed up.
It ain’t all pretty, folks, but that’s the picture Upworthy and BuzzFeed seem to paint. It’s just up to us to determine whether or not we are the generation who can only consume news or other content if it’s fun.
P.S. Take what I say with a grain of salt. I’m guilty of reading many a BuzzFeed article and, clearly, I’m a big GIF fan.
- Why Rachel Fagut Hates BuzzFeed (mi621.com)