As a stamp collecting teenager (oh come on, it’s obvious), I risked the wrath of philatelists by barely caring about the packets of definitives bought from WH Smith each week while taking care to count each stamp from every country or even totting up the face value of every stamp, and compiling charts and lists. Borderline autism or generally bloke-ish behaviour? A little from column A and list B….and chart C….and all the rest of them.
At one time, “news aggregators” were the unassuming corner of the Internet, functional and a bit boring. What happened next appears to be contamination with whatever icky fluid comes out when the ‘net starts leaking; aggregating news and affairs is all very well, but what people really like are MEMES and GIFs and KITTENS. And lo did come website brands mixing snappy images and quirky copy, and now the laziest trick in print journalism has come to the Internet for good – and by the heavens does cyberspace love it when laziness from print actually works out for them. “Time Sink” websites, those created to promote their own writers’ versions of comedians snarking “What’s THAT about?” over two pages, now make up most Facebook and Twitter feeds, hitting all the usual buttons for general consumption on a lazy office day or dull commute.
From the bog-book to the browser, “time sink” websites have made the Top 10 list their own, and just as they’re the product of mixing education with entertainment, they’re proving successful in making waves in news reporting too. Well, not “reporting” per se, but both US and UK politics exist with a parallel commentary on-line fuelled by BuzzFeed and the like running gifs and video clips of politicians and protests, feeding an on-line audience with the highlights of a political issue without having to bother with all the formality of television news or newspaper copy. Add to that video accounts, such as WatchMojo, and it appears the fastest growing market on-line is chart countdowns.
BuzzFeed aims to become more involved with news and current affairs in the coming years, which bodes well for British politicos preparing for 2015. It has already spread far from listing ten funny pictures of cats into such Facebook favourites as inspirational quotes and modified National Geographic style photographs. It can, and will, only grow bigger as the power of the easily consumed, rapidly forgotten list site stretches beyond the boundaries of the Internet. Watch how the tabloid press adopts the practices of BuzzFeed – and how the broadsheets ape Wired or Mashable with “click along for the next photo, what do you mean advertising revenue?” model of article construction.
The growing popularity of the list article and the “time sink” sites that use them may fade, if the internal battle between informative article and Internet feature is won by the latter. Sites such as Mental Floss and Cracked have amazing engagement figures from merely placing a link on Facebook, such ‘lazy clicks’ as happen in their thousands whenever people browse on their phones or tablets. What interests me is not so much the reduction of so much information into chunks, but how American sites have cornered the market so rapidly. All the main players – from Mashable to Cracked – are American, and ‘news aggregators’, where this all started, are mostly American too. Is the trivia gene dying out in the UK or are Americans more tuned-in to the ‘net’s opportunities to make advertising revenue out of the instant attraction to top 10 lists and collated video clips?
Memo to self – draft ‘Top Ten Differences Between US and UK websites by tomorrow’