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40 Signs You Fell for Berkeley “Click Bait”

September 3, 2013

It’s still ricocheting around cyberspace, shared via Facebook from alum to alum. Indeed the BuzzFeed post “40 Signs You Went to Berkeley” has proved an irresistible 2013 hit with its narrow niche of an audience, racking up more than 200,000 views and counting.

But it’s also become a flash point of controversy about what, if anything, its popularity reveals about the future of online “content”.

Such compilations—christened “demolisticles” and derived from the etymological mash-up of “demographic,” “list” and “article”—have become ridiculously successful click bait for micro-targeted slivers of an online readership.  Among the thousands of thriving entries are “16 Ways You Know You Go the University of Alabama” (#14—”Sirens from ambulances with injured/dying people are TOO commonplace”),  “26 Signs You Grew Up on a Scottish Island” (#11—”You know it’s summer because you have slightly unzipped your anorak”) and “30 Things Minnesotans Are Too Nice to Brag About” (#33—”Beautiful butter sculptures”).

But for some reason, the Berkeley BuzzFeed has become the poster child for demolisticles and a focus for those who love to hate them. And that, in turn, is prompting listicle aficionados to suggest critics should lighten up.

“I think some of the criticism of BuzzFeed is a little bit snooty,” said recent Cal grad and former California Magazine intern Ariane Lange, co-author of BuzzFeed’s Berkeley listicle. “This is a silly list, as opposed to journalism….Some people think you have to be serious all the time, but I think it’s fine to have the silliness alongside the seriousness.”

The genesis of this particular demolisticle can be traced to the Los Angeles offices of BuzzFeed, which employs Lange and Louis Peitzman, a former Daily Californian arts editor. Other staffers had begun to garner respectable clicks from lists extolling the idiosyncrasies of their own alma maters; Berkeley seemed like a natural. Because Peitzman graduated a few years before Lange, she says he enlisted her assistance to ensure the examples were still relevant.

They brainstormed off the top of their heads, exchanged ideas via email, incorporated a collection of flickr photos, and watched  “40 Signs You Went to Berkeley” go viral among their fellow Berkeleycentric alums.

Enter antagonist Will Oremus, a scribe at online magazine Slate (and, it must be noted, a graduate of Columbia University who appears to have never ventured beneath Sather Gate). Skimming his Facebook news feed one day, he encountered a link to the Berkeley demolisticle. Incredulous at its brazen exclusivity—after all, such a list would be utterly meaningless to 99.8 percent of all Americans—he clicked through.

The “signs” ran the gamut from the university-specific (#1—”You were indoctrinated at CalSO”) to the campus-specific (#10—”You’ve gotten lost in Dwinelle”) to the neighborhood specific (#17—”You’ve purchased potent edibles from Patches on Telegraph”) to the sociologically specific (#35—”You’re still surprised not everyone knows that gender is a social construct.”)

“What the hell is CalSO? The authors don’t bother to explain,” Oremus complained, noting similar frustration that the authors didn’t “deign to elaborate” on the meaning of GBC, FSM, GSI or TeleBEARS.

His Slate piece bore the headline: “The Rise of the Demolisticle: 40 Signs You Can Publish Any Old Crap Nowadays As Long As It’s Well-Targeted.”

“Five years ago an item with such limited appeal would have struggled to pass muster at Berkeley’s student newspaper, let alone a national media outlet,” he observed. “Posts like this require little to no reporting, only a tiny bit of writing, and, evidently, minimal imagination.”

His reaction piece penetrated the online media ecosystem, and generated its own counter-reaction: Not everyone was so willing to turn BuzzFeed into buzzkill. Ben Dreyfuss, engagement editor at Mother Jones, tweeted, “Shorter Slate: Every site was doing the same thing, then BuzzFeed did something new and people liked it. Damn them.”

It can be argued that the demolisticle isn’t a new concept at all; print magazines and David Letterman have for years exploited the truism that people love lists. But lists have special currency online, where clicks are commerce and readers are presumed to possess the attention span of a housefly on a sugar rush. Not only are slide shows and click-throughs likelier to retain readers’ interest, but they maximize the number of advertisements that can cozy up next to the content. Analysts report that readers are significantly more inclined to click on a piece and stay on it if it features oodles of photographs as opposed to, say, oodles of text. Outbrain, a content discovery platform that analyzed data on 150,000 online headlines, has even claimed to have found that lists containing odd numbers snare a 20 percent higher click-through rate than their even-numbered counterparts.

BuzzFeed, which critics say has gamed Facebook as skillfully as Demand Media once gamed Google, has emerged to dominate the demolisticle. All it takes is attracting the eyeballs of a relatively miniscule subset of readers (say, friends of the authors) and relying on them to repost, share and retweet a piece to everyone in their social media network with whom they share a common bond. In this case, Cal.

The beauty of it all? It’s both self-referential and self-reverential.

“It’s ‘sharing this says something about who I am,’ “ Lange explains. She makes the case that the listicle can actually be good for journalism. “Long-form journalism is valuable as well, but long-form is not as accessible to as many people. People who won’t read long-form will read a list.”

Which is not to say that demolisticles, which often are devoid of thought, must always be so. Lange cites her recent post, “How Many Gay Jokes Were There at James Franco’s Roast?”  “The James Franco piece is an example of the demolisticle as journalism,” she says. “It also makes a point, which is that gay jokes are tired and offensive, and it does it in an accessible way.”

As is the case with the proliferation of reality TV shows, the success of one demolisticle serves only to germinate hundreds more, from “The 16 Most Homoerotic Photos of Vladimir Putin” to  “21 Kinds of Offal, Ranked by How Gross They Look”  (highlights include food-porn photos of pork trotter, duck tongue, pig snout and calf brain.) Satirists are resorting to mockery, such as The Awl’s  “Listicles Without Commentary” feature (among them is “The Cast of ‘Twelve Angry Men’ in Order of Hotness,” which reads just like it sounds: “#1—Juror #9, #2–Juror #10, #3—Juror #3…)

But for evidence of the sheer ubiquitousness of the listicle, look no further than BuzzFeed’s recent debut of The ListiClock, a flipping online timekeeper that literally displays a BuzzFeed list for every hour, minute and second of every day.

Meanwhile BuzzFeed’s Berkeley list has inspired its own homage from The Daily Californian’s blog The Daily Clog, entitled “40 More Signs You Went to UC Berkeley.” Cal alumni continue to share both posts, while offering their own additions.

At this rate, the half-life of the demolisticle could rival that of plutonium.

—Vicki Haddock

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