When Clickhole launched a year ago this month, it quickly became clear that the Onion sibling was the right site for the right moment. Designed to resemble the host of Facebook-feed-clogging traffic generators such as Upworthy, Distractify, Playbuzz, Viral Thread, and Shocktopia, Clickhole’s mission is to make a mockery of online media’s most gimmicky behavior (lists! quizzes! sales-pitch headlines!) and overreliance on viral-ready subjects such as celebrity gossip, 90s pop-culture nostalgia, reactionary politics, and personal essays.
Clickhole is most commonly characterized as a Buzzfeed spoof (“a pitch-perfect Buzzfeed parody,” as a recent Slate piece described it), but that’s not quite the whole story. Clickhole’s satire has a broader target: a society in which Internet browsing and social media command more attention from humans than the real world around us, and more businesses than ever are licking their chops to harness that attention for profit.
But what exactly is it about Clickhole’s satire that’s so resonant? In observance of the site’s one-year anniversary, I tried to get to the bottom of Clickhole, to consider why it isn’t just good but also good for the Internet. Naturally, I formatted my findings as a list.
1. Clickhole is the most logical evolution of the Onion for the Internet age.
“Area Men Agree Print Is Dead” went the Crain’s Chicago Business headline, in November 2013, above a story about how the Onion would cease its print operations that December to focus all its attention on digital operations. Just as “America’s Finest News Source” mimicked the editorial forms of newspapers, its business model, unfortunately, also replicated the downward trends of most print- media outlets.
What the brain trust at the Onion realized is that in order to survive it could imitate the patterns of the most successful media companies—pursuing high online traffic numbers in order to secure site sponsorships and higher digital ad rates—while simultaneously parodying those same media companies that dumb down content to generate readership. Publishing this material in the Onion, which already had an identity as a takeoff of newspapers, wouldn’t be the right fit. The obvious solution was to create an entirely new website.
2. It made the “About Us” page essential.
Clickhole’s self-description—which went live on launch day, June 12, 2014—is a study in contemporary online-media jargon: “the latest and greatest online social experience filled with the most clickable, irresistibly shareable content anywhere on the Internet.” There’s even a visual guide—”A Step-By-Step Guide To Clicking”—with illustrations that resemble an airplane safety manual.
One of Clickhole’s signature satirical tricks is to fool readers into thinking that the site has removed its conceptual veil. Take the “What is the goal of Clickhole?” section on the “About Us” page. “Let’s be honest,” it reads, “Today, the average website carelessly churns out hundreds of pieces of pandering, misleading content, most of which tragically fall short of going viral. At ClickHole, we refuse to stand for this.”
At the moment that it appears as if Clickhole is being sincere about its objective, the site’s authors fail to break character.
“We strive to make sure that all of our content panders to and misleads our readers just enough to make it go viral,” the passage continues. “You see, we don’t think anything on the internet should ever have to settle for mere tens of thousands of pageviews. We believe that each and every article—whether about pop culture, politics, internet trends, or social justice—should be clicked on and shared by hundreds of millions of internet users before they can even comprehend what they just read.”
3. It taps into the existential despair of a life lived mostly online.
Clickhole often seems like a reaction to a feeling that anyone who spends hours a day online staring into a screen can relate to: a restless ennui. In its most despair-filled articles, the site’s message is that virtual life is essentially unfulfilling.
This outlook is epitomized by the recent listicle “The Only 31 Things Standing in Between You and Your Dreams,” a brutal rundown of the obstacles people face in contemporary capitalist society, from student loans to complacency to pet ownership to “the finite nature of time.” The cheerful phrasing of each ostensibly motivational item only makes the cruelty of the exercise that much more devastating. Sample: “Achieving your dreams requires a lot of time and attention, so all you’ve got to do is part ways with the person you love more than anyone else on earth and you’ll be completely free to dive into things headfirst.”
4. It made online quizzes seem smart.
As most famously popularized by Buzzfeed, online quizzes (at best) test trivia knowledge and (mostly) ascribe broad, dumb labels to people via answers to seemingly unrelated questions: “Who Should You Date Based on Your Taste in Food?” “Can We Guess How Good You Are In Bed From These Random Questions?” “Which Type Of Salsa Are You?” (These are real Buzzfeed quizzes.)
The first quiz Clickhole published is still perhaps the site’s best: “If I Ordered Fries, Would You Have Any?” It offers stages of a dialogue between two people, with the reader acting as one side of the exchange. The possible responses to the question “I probably wouldn’t eat them all, but would you help me if I ordered a small?” include: “I could maybe go for a few,” “I don’t know,” and “I’m not super hungry, but are you definitely going to get some?”
In addition to pointing out the trivial nature of online quizzes, Clickhole suggests the Web gimmick is an extension of a broader malaise: that the self-absorbed, bourgeois interaction between two people over whether or not to order and split fries comes from the same impulse that leads people to take an Internet quiz.
5. Its imitations of sentimental editorials and self-righteous Internet outrage are pitch-perfect.
Clickhole’s Blog section frequently and masterfully satirizes online writing’s most common, most nauseating trends.
In response to the Internet’s glut of personal essays about major life decisions reduced to smug advice columns, Clickhole posted “How Changing Careers at 40 Taught Me What a Bad Decision That Was,” a nod to the fact that essays about utter failure are almost never published online.
Tackling opinion pieces that excessively project political or social problems onto subjects, art, or culture, the site fired off “If Only Once, it Would Be Nice if Hodor Said ‘Women’s Rights,'” which mocks gratuitous sociopolitical criticism of Game of Thrones by attributing a lack of feminist thought to a character who can only say his own name.
The site also has taken aim at outrage-filled op-eds. In “It’s Time to Publicly Execute Ronald McDonald,” a “children’s health and consumer advocate” argues ironically that the only way to stop the negative influence the McDonald’s mascot has on children would be to kill him in front of children.
And then there are Yelp reviews: Clickhole’s five-star “I Had a Terrible Experience at This Restaurant Because I Am a Terrible Person” speaks for itself.
6. Its social media feeds point out the hollowness of online approval (and those who seek it).
Like any earnest media company, Clickhole uses Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to share its own content. But it also repurposes those same channels as a conduit for different styles of humor, refracting criticisms of social media through social media themselves. On its feeds, the site overlays absurd maxims and directives over various images. Emblazoned on a picture of a sun setting over a mountain range, for instance, is this text: “Like if you agree that the sun is impossible!”
In Clickhole’s view, “likes” and “shares” of politically inclined social media campaigns don’t often have much of a real-world effect on whatever cause they’re promoting. Regardless of whether it’s a corporation, a nonprofit, or a viral-content website behind the squishy campaign, the act is merely a promotional tool for the brand that has opportunistically latched on to the associated issue or movement. Hence a photo of a Coke can with a message that reads, “It’s time to make a difference! Share if you want Coca-Cola to print ‘It’s good that women can vote’ on every can.”
Aside from corporations using social tools to cash in, Clickhole also has social media’s superstars in its sights. Back in September, it published “10 Things We Hope George Takei Likes Enough to Share,” aimed at the former Star Trek cast member whose social media feeds are some of the most popular on the Internet (his Facebook page alone has more than 8.6 million followers). Clickhole’s listicle featured such Takei bait as a cute kitten photo, memes related to rock star astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and even Edvard Munch’s The Scream with Takei’s signature “Oh Myyy” catchphrase written in a word bubble on top of the painting. The site then ventured on a daylong mission to get Takei to share the list, tagging him on Twitter and Facebook and even making his head take the place of the o in its logo.
Eventually Takei did share the Clickhole post on his Facebook page, and he definitely understood on some level what the site was trying to do, writing, “To the gang over at clickhole.com: Okay, you got my attention, and it was really quite funny. Like an online ‘roast’ of sorts. Keep it coming.” As of this writing, the Facebook post has received more than 38,000 likes and 1,300 shares.
7. Some of its targets don’t realize the site is satirical.
In the recurring item “They Said What?!” Clickhole attributes fake quotes to real celebrities, a send-up of tabloid magazines and websites that conduct the same practice with actual quotes. What’s remarkable is that some celebs, thinking Clickhole to be yet another run-of-the-mill clickbaiter, have actually believed the site was misquoting them. This isn’t a new experience for the Onion; there are whole articles—on Buzzfeed even!—that list the instances people were fooled by the fake news organization.
A “They Said What?!” in April had Russell Crowe weighing in “on cultural differences”: “Whenever I hear an American say Aussies drive on the ‘wrong side of the road,’ I just lose it. You ever think about how those people grew up driving on the ‘wrong side of the road,’ watched a lot of people get hurt on the ‘wrong side of the road,’ die on the ‘wrong side of the road,’ while other people cheered from the ‘right side of the road’? Australia has a thing called Highway Fights, so it’s touchy.” When Clickhole posted it on Twitter, Crowe, not realizing what the site is, tweeted in reply: “What is this rubbish? Where does it come from?” He removed the tweet shortly afterward.
Last month, Anderson Cooper followed suit. Clickhole quoted the CNN news reader saying, at a commencement address at NYU: “Graduation is a big deal—bigger than getting a hole-in-one while golfing. People might think you’re lying about the hole-in-one, but when you graduate, you get a diploma.” Cooper tweeted at Clickhole: “Ummm… @Clickhole, do u make this stuff up? I never said this quote and never spoke to the NYU class of 2015.” Unlike Crowe, Cooper was able to make light of the situation later, admitting on his show that he didn’t know what Clickhole was, laughing hysterically at its headlines, and telling viewers: “Don’t believe everything you read.”
8. It renewed interest in Moby-Dick.
Realizing that Moby-Dick is in the public domain, Clickhole reprinted the entirety of Herman Melville’s novel—more than 200,000 words. The headline? “The Time I Spent on a Commercial Whaling Ship Totally Changed My Perspective on the World.”
9. It approaches online media as a conceptual art project.
Clickhole’s videos, particularly, often blur the distinctions between art, mass media, and satirical comedy. “This Stick of Butter Is Left Out at Room Temperature; You Won’t Believe What Happens Next” is a willfully misleading title, because we all know exactly what happens next: the butter slowly melts, in real time, over the course of the three-hour video. But if you put the video on a monitor in a contemporary art gallery, it wouldn’t seem out of place.
In “What Does it Mean to Be a Man?” ambient music plays in the background while various men explain the pressures of trying to appear manly. It’s designed to resemble a public service infomercial in which a series of subjects spill their personal accounts of a shared affliction. Just as the notion that men are held to unfair standards is absurd, so are the comments the actors make in the video. “The free turkey men get is good. The free Oreos are good,” says one guy. “But mustard costs four times as much for men, and that can be so hard sometimes.” The video is more surreal than most of what passes for “surrealism” nowadays, managing to critique inequality while approaching the subject in a bizarre, oblique, totally unpredictable manner.
10. It astutely exploits the very infrastructure it parodies.
Despite being a project devoted to satirizing the current state of online media, Clickhole’s financial model nevertheless relies on the same principles as the most egregious clickbait violators: it produces proven traffic generators such as quizzes, listicles, and videos (the site averages between ten and 15 million page views a month); its staffers write commanding and wordy headlines; it publishes “sponsored posts”; and the site’s editors and writers tend to look to the same Google-search-friendly topics—celebrities, Game of Thrones, cats—as any of their targets.
Clickhole even participates in a practice that annoys even the most obliging online media consumers: it splits articles into separate pages to increase page views. Naturally, the site devised a brilliant concept to carry out the scheme: Clickventures, a play on Choose Your Own Adventure in which users click various buttons that lead them on alternate routes. At the end of the click-happy journey, of course, Clickhole prompts visitors to go back to the beginning and try a different course of action. Because: more clicks!
11. It’s actually not as subversive as it seems.
Less than six months after Clickhole’s launch, one of its editors was poached by Buzzfeed, prompting some bloggers to express mock concern that the Internet would collapse. But should anyone have been surprised?
By so closely resembling the sites it mocks, Clickhole rather stealthily has become the very same kind of site. It is just as reliant on page views as any other digital publisher, but by so craftily satirizing the Internet industrial complex, it has managed to be above reproach.
After Clickhole had been operating for 100 days, Fast Company ran an interview with two of the site’s principals, editor Jermaine Affonso and Onion managing editor Ben Berkley. Despite being in the business of writing jokes, Affonso and Berkley sound more like marketers than comics, the former eager to note how an article is “a really strong piece of content,” and both discussing the relative reach of different kinds of “content” they produce.
The Onion‘s three-year-old ad agency, Onion Labs, joins Buzzfeed and Vice among the ranks of companies that house editorial projects and advertising businesses under the same roof. “Onion Labs has produced articles and video content for around 150 brands, including Burger King, Honda, Bud Light and Lenovo, which flock to the company for its comedic expertise,” Digiday’s Eric Blattberg wrote in April. “And when advertisers don’t get the joke, they can work with the A.V. Club, the Onion‘s entertainment and pop culture publication.”
For a company that derives so much of its success from taking aim at other publications’ ravenous pursuit of clicks (and therefore ad dollars), the Onion appears to be blurring the line between advertising and editorial as much as any other online publication. If Clickhole offers the most incisive critique of the decay of editorial integrity, then how do we make sense of the reality that online media’s sharpest critic is also eager to embrace the current state of things? How far down the Clickhole can we go? v