Sunday, July 21, 2013

Why It's a Good Thing that the Defining News Organization of Our Times Is "Powered by Cute"

I just discovered BuzzFeed, and I love it [1]. BuzzFeed calls itself "powered by cute," a statement that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. How can the watchdog of democracy be powered by cute? What has happened to society?

I love that it's powered by cute. I love that it's powered by cute because I think that's a better paradigm than powered by fear.

When we talk about the dumbing down of the media, we take for granted the way traditional news media did things as being based in some sort of intellectual paradigm. Media has always used the tools at hand to increase volume, and going at least as far back as the great battles b/w Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst in the 1890's for dominance in the NY market, that has tended to mean taking what was happening in the world and reporting on it in the manner best suited to outrage your readership. [2]. From there you might get them to read about politics, culture, or international news, but it always started with outrage.

Now take the BuzzFeed model (which I will admit made it rather difficult to focus on writing this post): reel you in with pictures of cute fluffy animals, then deliver thought-provoking coverage of race relations in America.

I'm often reminded of Earl Warren's famous quote that he goes to the front page of the paper to read about man's failures and to the sports page to read his successes. BuzzFeed has effectively shifted the model from reeling people in with negative feeling to reeling them in with positive feeling (from outrage porn to cuteness porn, if you will [3]).

It turns out there the way humans are oriented, there aren't enough emotionally engaging positive stories to report on, so they had to resort to pictures of cute animals to arouse those positive feelings.

Would you rather live in a world where people associate news - real news, things people need to know in order to make important decisions about their lives and their governments - with negative feelings or positive?


[1] Of course I knew about BuzzFeed before. I heard Jonah Perretti talk. I have friends who work at BuzzFeed. But I always did my best to avoid it. I decried it as the dumbing down of journalism; the end of democracy, etc. Today for the first time I got BuzzFeed.

[2] It's tempting to view outraging your readership as having a social calling; outraging them in order to mobilize them towards some sort of socially positive outcome. If you have that temptation read chapter four of The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst, especially this choice headline (a headline!) from the April 3, 1887 edition of the San Francisco Examiner, then under Hearst's editorialship:
HUNGRY, FRANTIC FLAMES. They Leap Madly Upon the Splendid Pleasure Palace by the Bay of Monterey, Encircling Del Monte in Their Ravenous Embrace From Pinnacle to Foundation. Leaping Higher, Higher, Higher, With Desperate Desire. Running Madly Riotous Through Cornice, Archway and Facade. Rushing in Upon the Trembling Guests with Savage Fury. Appalled and Panic-Striken the Breathless Fugitives Gaze Upon the Scene of Terror. The Magnificent Hotel and Its Rich Adornments Now a Smoldering heap of Ashes. The "Examiner" Sends a Special Train to Monterey to Gather Full Details of the Terrible Disaster. Arrival of the Unfortunate Victims on the Morning's Train—A History of Hotel del Monte—The Plans for Rebuilding the Celebrated Hostelry—Particulars and Supposed Origin of the Fire.
[3] My friend Adee has pointed out that I use the term "porn" a lot to describe things of all sorts bearing a common characteristic that you can't look away from. Guilty as charged.

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