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You’ll probably only understand this paper if you’re anavid internet user—or if I explain it really, really well. As the internet evolves into the primary mode of publication, taking over the role of print based mediums, it has been, shall we say, polluted with cheap headlines to the effect of the above sentence. Headlines from online publications such as Buzzfeed and every other Facebook dwelling entity which has tried to emulate the formula have produced, what we call in the biz, “listicles.
” They’re just another example of “click-bait” articles, those links with headlines that give no information about the body of the text or video it advertises and instead provides a fat, juicy hook. Things like “This Video Will Change Your Whole Outlook on Life!” and “Mother Finds THIS in the Park, You’ll Never Guess What Happens Next.” These headlines tease an ultimately disappointing human interest story, but the listicle has a more delicate approach to getting your attention.
They demand the reader to make a connection with them, to identify with their point of view and draw them in.
A listicle takes the form of a, you guessed it, numbered list pertaining to the attractive title, often accompanied by stock photos. There are many forms of listicles in the genre, but here, I am focusing on those that follow the “only x will understand y” variety. Common subjects include generations, locations, and fandoms—targeting, say, “nineties kids,” Californians, and movie fans. Take, for instance, this example from Buzzfeed, the kings of click bait: “21 Words You Don’t Actually Understand Unless You’re From Connecticut” (Stryker).
I chose this example because it involves two things I’m somewhat attached to: words and my home state. This example is also typical, at least in its headline, for the genre. Observe, if you will, the unnecessary verbiage in the headline.
The word “you” is unconventional enough without the use of contractionsand, blasphemy, a fluent sentence fragment! A more traditional “news” headline would read something like “Connecticut Natives Have Own Vocabulary” or “In-Group Bias Changing Diction.” There was a day when concision was a virtue, when the New York Times wrote zingers like “John Lennon of Beatles is Killed; Suspect Held in Shooting at Dakota” (Ledbetter 1980). These two headlines differ in a few major ways and it isn’t necessarily a value call. For one thing, the New York Times doesn’t consider grammar in its headlines. It’s just about dishing out information, whereas Buzzfeed, proud convert of the information age, is after something different: clicks.
They want to make sure that their readers/consumers progress to the next page and prove to their advertisers that the website is getting ample traffic. So the length and clunkiness of Buzzfeed’s headline doesn’t matter so much for their intention, their arguably more capitalist intention. The New York Times has a different style of headline because they are writing for a different audience and, more importantly, occupying a different space. Space, as a rhetorical function in the way Nancy Welsh has defined it, has never been so drastically changed as it was when the internet came into being. In her essay, Welsh argues that “people make rhetorical space through… [a] struggle for visibility, voice and impact” (Welsh, 477). Arguably, however, the “space” in this instance was created for producers like Buzzfeed. The listicle, then, is sort of filling the space, taking on the role that was previously occupied by lifestyle magazines.
Click-bait itself has sort of taken on the role of classic tabloid publications, publishing headlines almost as ridiculous and attention-grabbing as “Dick Cheney is a Robot!” and “Severed Leg Hops to Hospital.”The headline, for Buzzfeed, is more of the first sentence of an article than it is a bugle for its message. The New York Times article gives the information up front and leaves nothing up to the imagination. Reading the headline alone, we know that John Lennon was murdered at the Dakota and the suspect is being held in custody. Wham. If we want more information—who the killer was, when the murder occurred, the whole “scoop”—we read the rest of the article. Buzzfeed doesn’t want to give anything away. Content is all they have.
Reading the Buzzfeed title, however, we have no concept of any of the twenty-one words it’s going to tell us about. The New York Times gives us information; the Buzzfeed tells us what the information is going to be. We have to dig in to find out. So let’s eat. Giving in to my base Nutmegger curiosity and opening the article straight off my ex girlfriend’s Facebook page, we find the first word on the list: Mystic, followed by the lovely picture of a child tapping on a manatee’s aquarium glass. This article happens to be one of the scrolling variety-one click and we’re in. But there are some listicles that are more like photo galleries, you’re presented with one item and you have to click again through a mountain of advertisements to find the next. It’s just another way for companies like this to mine web traffic and earn their advertising money. But I digress.
Mystic, that’s the word. Buzzfeed tells us “what other people think it means: having the quality of magic” which, sure, is a passing definition of the word, but what Connecticutters think it means, nay, “what people from Connecticut know it means: field trips to the aquarium and the seaport” [emphasis mine] (Buzzfeed). I would be willing to guess that those unfamiliar with Connecticut still don’t know exactly what Nutmeggers think “mystic” means. Sure, you might be able to guess that there is a Mystic Aquarium and a Mystic Seaport in Connecticut and that these places are popular for school field trips—and you’d be right—but the extent of the memories the word “mystic” is meant to call up is not explained. If you don’t come from the fifth and most forgotten state in the union, you aren’t expected to “understand” this listicle, hence the title. Clearly, this listicle, like most listicles, has an intended audience.
Rather, as Welch has put it, “writers… face the task of constructing a responsive public” (Welsh, 476). In this instance, she’s referring to protest movements and political activism, but it applies to this form of listicle surprisingly well. Language like this, language that really only identifies the subject to those already familiar with it further reinforces the in-group of “people from Connecticut.” Listicles like this one, listicles that use the language of “only x kind of people will understand y,” are built on the structure of reinforcement. They’re written for a group that already knows the “information” being presented. Buzzfeed’s audience, here, are Connecticut natives who will smile and nod at the mention of words like “the Sound,” “Mystic,” and “95,” all of them knowing, as they do, that outsiders won’t understand why these phrases are significant. But more importantly, the “constructed public” has to respond both literally and figuratively to the article. And this is where Facebook, the monster that made us, comes in.
Buzzfeed as a whole is very much a Facebook phenomenon, a publication that circulates its products almost exclusively through Facebook friends of Facebook friends. Buzzfeed’s listicles, particularly of the xy variety I have described, are “shared” for a particular purpose. A Facebook “share” can be used for many things—to say “I found this interesting,” or “this is awful, have you seen this?,” or, even, “look how smart I am for finding this TedTalk from Malcolm Gladwell.” However, a Facebook share of a Buzzfeed xy listicle is less to say “I like this” as to say “I am like this.” Take, for instance, this headline: “22 Things People who are Chronically Early will Totally Understand.” It’s crowned by a lovely picture of Spongebob Squarepants sitting alone at a table. Obviously, this article targets the early birds of the millennial generation. The person who shared this story is a Facebook friend of mine.
Friends of hers commented not on the article’s comment section, but on that first friend’s “sharing” of that article. JH commented, “this sounds so much like me it is creepy” and MP responded “oh my god I’m the same way, like if I’m not at least 5 minutes early, I’m late” [sic]. Other commenters responded in much the same way, continuing to outline the listicle as a social function of self-definition. The idea of posting, or “sharing,” a listicle on Facebook as a social action is one reflected by Peter Medway. He calls genres a “social action” given that “practitioners (of genre) find themselves in a socially recognized and typified situation” (Medway, 142).
The posting of a listicle on Facebook has become, as Medway puts it, a “socially recognized” action, and the response given by the commenters reflect the response intended by Buzzfeed. Thus, the reading of the listicle becomes both a social action and an interaction with the public sphere. There are a multitude of listicles on the Buzzfeed website alone, many of them constituting, or targeting, a different, very niche audience-people from Connecticut, people who are often early. Buzzfeed wants to make all of its readers feel just a little bit special and unique.
This, then, is Dryer’s route of circulation. Buzzfeed publishes on its website which is perused by readers and then redistributed on Facebook by those readers who found an article/listicle that they found worth their time. It’s a fluid world of “likes” and “shares,” a world where those actions, which used to be performed physically on the street with magazines and newspapers and books, have been digitized and numbed into a single click. The capitalist venture Buzzfeed has undertaken is predicated on products being viewed, clicked on, and ads seen. The more people who read, like, and share their stuff, the more views, clicks, and ad revenue they get. It is, then, in Buzzfeed’s best interest to produce a mass of content and to piggyback off of Facebook’s audience, an audience that includes a significant portion of the world’s population, to the point where we all have digital citizenship. All of these characteristics are typical of the listicle genre.
Every listicle will have (1) a somewhat lengthy and catchy title, one that doesn’t give away the content but acts as a hook, and (2) a specified number of items accompanied by brief explanations. The title may use the “only x will understand y” language or not, but those elements will always be present. Medway defines genre as “when people do roughly similar sorts of textual things in circumstances perceived as roughly similar” (Medway, 141). In the case of listicles, it is clear that the genre is much less than fuzzy. The form stays relatively close to the way it has always been. Yet Medway is a fan of the “fuzzy genre,” the genre that isn’t quite a genre, the genre that changes. He says that there are “degrees of genreness” (Medway, 141).
To speak to the evolving nature of the internet and the perceived distaste of the listicle, Ilan Mochari of Inc. says, in an interview with Gabrielle Schwartz, as a response to the question of journalism’s future that “magazines will continue to do whatever gets great traffic” and that “if there ever comes a time when readers get fatigued of the list….there will be a way that those will change” (Mochari). In essence, Mochari says that genre will remain static for as long as the listicle generates a profit. The plan, so it seems, is to run the well dry. Currently the listicle is static, but the future is left to capitalist whims. Another difference: there is no news here. The twenty-one items “only people from Connecticut will understand” aren’t followed up with, say, a new study on why in-groups create their own associations with commonplace words or anything like that.
For the first time in our history, the media has begun to pump out “articles” made purely for entertainment, for distracting us, arguably, from real news and the sad but slow death of print news publications. The “greatest value of listicles, argues Mochari is “that it’s a fast read and it’s entertaining.” He goes on to call the listicle a “tapas plate of information,” explaining that they’re intended for an audience with only a few minutes to kill (read: five minutes without a data-stream burning a hole in their eyes) (Mochari). The listicle genre is filling a desire for quick entertainment, not information. Let’s be honest, no Nutmegger needs to know that other people associate UConn with the Yukon and not the state school ninety-eight per cent of their graduating class vamoosed to after high school. They’re weapons of feel-goodliness, re-enforcers of belonging. And, of course, they aren’t always successful in their content.
Mochari admits that “if you stopped 100 people on the street and asked them what they thought of listicles…they’d say (they hate them)” (Mochari). The listicle reading experience is plagued by disappointment or, as Mochari puts it, those who weren’t “nourished by it” and by the advertisements that drive the genre as a principle. The listicle has become a social venture, a product of the internet. Yet, as the web continues to weave the world together, every contribution becomes a function of the public sphere. The listicle, particularly the xy Buzzfeed variety, is less a genre of the media and more a function of Facebook, a product of the times. No longer are publications required to produce informative genres. No more does news rule. The listicle is pure entertainment, a way for the average Facebook user to describe themselves or a friend. Readers of the listicle look for common ground, information they are already aware of, proof that rhetoric genre functions both as a capitalist venture and a social action.
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