BuzzFeed, BuzzFeed on my screen: What’s the fairest result of all?

Meagan Gillmore

The Buzzfeed Quiz has proven an epic diversion for a generation of youth, as young people everywhere search for meaning and life’s lessons in a quiz.

I did not need a list(icle) of all the reasons why taking BuzzFeed quizzes wasn’t the best use of my time.

But I did it anyway.

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As a first-year undergraduate, I assumed I was destined to be an outcast after an early Facebook quiz revealed I was a mixture of the Friends characters Ross Geller (David Schwimmer) and Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow). I was devastated.

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But that was so 2007. This was 2015. I didn’t want advice for navigating a new social group. Instead, I thought immersing myself in quizzes would help me understand the grip BuzzFeed has on a generation of youth. I’ve studied journalism. I’ve worked for news organizations. I know the real value of quizzes lies in BuzzFeed’s ability to leverage the hyper viral quiz and sell it as a “branded content” tool to marketers.  

I know BuzzFeed is a company, a data lovin’ brand that uses the personal information they gather from users to attract more advertisers. It cares about my wallet; not my well-being.

BuzzFeed proved quickly it didn’t know me. It said my personality resembles Life cereal – even though I’ve never eaten it. It declared me a novice Carrie Underwood fan when I failed a quiz about the country singer - conveniently timed with the release of her album, Storyteller. Now, I may not know how she likes to spend her spare time, but I can name almost every song on her first four albums. “BuzzFeed,” I declared to my computer screen, wishing it was a set of car headlights I could take a baseball bat to, “you do not know me.”

I was caught: I wanted to be independent, free from the commercial trappings of BuzzFeed. But I also wanted BuzzFeed to validate my existence, to know me.

I’m not alone.

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The BuzzFeed quiz is one of the most ingenious marketing coups ever invented. It attracts eyeballs, generates clicks and fosters a level of engagement that few digital business models can rival. Of course, BuzzFeed quizzes are designed to be shared on social media. Results appear with no log in required. They’re part of BuzzFeed’s “buzz” content - material created to generate critical metrics like “views,” “likes,” “shares” and “comments.” Content focuses on topics that will spark conversation. This can be established through nostalgia (I apparently forget most one-hit wonders from the early 2000’s), or region-specific content (my patriotism soared when BuzzFeed declared I am more like Tim Hortons than Starbucks.).

Granted, pulling you into “the club” used to happen offline, too. As a child, my sister, mother and I would compare our results in the quizzes found in copies of Woman’s World my grandmother kept at the family cottage. Then again, it wasn’t harvesting my personal information – and the copies eventually were discarded. But on mobile devices connected to the Internet, the conversation never ends, and neither do the concerns about privacy.

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 “It’s part of the deal of doing business, whether rightly or wrongly,” says Natalie Coulter, a communications studies professor at Toronto’s York University. It’s not just BuzzFeed quizzes that create privacy challenges. Facebook quiz users sometimes have to agree to allow third-party access to information on their profiles (and sometimes their friends’ profiles), before viewing quiz results. You may not know who these “third parties” are. That matters, because quizzes are all about sharing, and each “share” gives the potential for more personal data to be harvested.

Sharing comes with other (perhaps more subtle – and dangerous) risks.

“There’s this constant pressure to define yourself as an individual,” says Coulter. “But then the flip side is, you have to be defined in such a way that your friends accept.”

 “People can validate (your results) or not validate it,” says Coulter.  It “makes you part of an online conversation.”

 “I hate the word ‘branding,’” she says, “but really it’s about defining yourself in a particular way.”

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BuzzFeed quizzes offer specific options of how users can be seen. Sometimes, questions ask users what their favourite bands, celebrities or board games are. But the only options are those BuzzFeed provides.

Commercial pressures are also blatant: from the seemingly endless references to Disney or Starbucks and quizzes timed with movie releases. The consumer profiling and individualization helps promote consumerism and market economies, says Coulter, noting quizzes don’t advocate social justice or being an informed citizen. The other, more pernicious, effect of the sharability - the science of what BuzzFeed calls “social lift” - means users can face judgement depending on their score.

“The solution, then, to not be judged, is to create a better image,” says Coulter. “It fits into the needs of the marketplace: buy better stuff, look prettier, be skinnier.”

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Social pressures are more subtle and dangerous – especially for pre-teens and teens who have this content exploding on their social media platforms. Most adults likely don’t want children to learn about sex through a quiz asking them to determine if something is a sex position or a yoga pose. Some quizzes assume users are sexually active. Another promises to guess users’ relationship statuses based on their favourite board games. Options included: being in a long-term relationship, starting to see someone, hooking up and loving it, or single and loving it. Potential dangers of “hooking up” were not mentioned. Nor was the sacrifice required in long-term relationships, or the times when people don’t love being single.

As Craig Silverman, editor of BuzzFeed Canada, puts it: “The things we tend to share on social media, we do so in a way to present the view of ourselves as we would like other people to see us.”

Which is why although my roommates chuckled about BuzzFeed dubbing me as Life cereal, I kept another quiz result quiet.

While reeling over the site’s lack of information about my music knowledge and cereal preferences, I found a quiz that’s title summarized the question that drove me to social media nearly a decade ago: “Do you guys hate me?” There it was, all my teenage angst written in capital letters on notebook paper. “Do you guys hate me? Seriously tho,” read the first question. “Am I annoying? I feel like I’m annoying,” the next asked.

I stumbled through; trying to determine which pre-determined response my friends would give.

My result, next to a picture of a crying face: “You guys hate me?”

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Then, this explanation: “I knew it.”

I kept this result secret. But I also can’t say I’ve stopped taking quizzes.


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