The dust from BuzzFeed (BZFD)’s company-wide global layoffs won’t settle anytime soon, and the broader industry backlash has been substantial. Around 200 journalists and digital creatives lost their jobs this past weekend, and still more contributors have been left to contemplate their roles in an organization that appears to be choosing pursuit of profit over sustainable employment for its workers.
One such contributor is Rachel McMahon, a 19-year-old sophomore at Grand Valley State University in Michigan who majors in communications and writes original quizzes for the BuzzFeed Community forum in her spare time. Thousands of volunteers contribute to the BuzzFeed Community for the heck of it, but McMahon is something of an anomaly in that the quizzes she writes regularly rack up hundreds of thousands of unique views, generating considerable revenue for BuzzFeed.
In an interview with New York magazine, McMahon, who is unpaid for her work, characterized her quiz-writing habit as “just a hobby.” However, she also acknowledged that the approximately 692 quizzes she’s made for the site frequently pull in an enviable number of unique hits, which are trackable via her BuzzFeed account dashboard.
“Here’s one with 578,000. One with 428,000; 499,000; 534,000,” McMahon pointed out. The site thanked McMahon for her labor by sending her a package of free swag that included clothing and a coffee mug, but that was all. “I didn’t know it was that big of a thing,” McMahon said.
Perpetua wrote that since a large amount of the site’s quiz traffic comes from amateur-produced content, it made sense financially for BuzzFeed to cut the staffers who were actually getting paid and opt for padding the site out with free labor like Rachel’s. He also said that McMahon is the “second highest traffic driver worldwide” for BuzzFeed’s quizzes.
Not only did BuzzFeed decline to give McMahon compensation, but even after her quiz-writing prowess became clear, editorial overseers made sure she kept her content mill churning.
“What really helped was when I got added to a BuzzFeed community Facebook page by BuzzFeed workers,” McMahon told New York. “They’d give us challenges. Like if it was near Christmas, they’d be like, ‘Oh it’s a Christmas challenge, make as many Christmas-related quizzes and post them in here and we’ll promote them.’ The workers helped give me ideas on quizzes. It always seemed to me that they wanted me to make quizzes, but now I’m getting responses on Twitter where people are saying I should have realized I was taking these people’s jobs.”
Of course, McMahon isn’t responsible for the mass layoffs. She just had no idea that the mastery she was demonstrating is a very marketable skill. It seems that because it would have been financially inconvenient for BuzzFeed, no one there ever informed her precisely how valuable her talent is.
And the specificity of that talent is worth examining in detail. Internet quizzes are now so ubiquitous that the format is likely permanently embedded in our brains. The inherent link between your favorite season and which Disney Princess you are is both a tenuous and undeniable source of entertainment. Like astrology, quizzes are built to tell you something fascinating about yourself; they feed your ego in small, innocuous doses.
McMahon’s quizzes are lighthearted, pop culturally savvy and pleasurably short, but her cleverest innovation may be that she built quizzes that, up-front, let the reader know that the choices they made during the quiz would have no obvious bearing on the quiz’s outcome. In other words, her quizzes break the fourth wall and let the audience in on the joke. They are viral sensations.
For example, Like or Pass on These Pop-Tart Flavors and We’ll Guess Your Relationship Status is a marvel of SEO. It is also McMahon’s most popular quiz, with 851,000 hits and counting.
Why does it work? As the reader, you’re intrigued by the headline because you are immediately informed that all you have to do is hit a “Yes” or “No” button to move through the quiz, a faster and easier process than puzzling through multiple choice questions. The food appeal is obvious: Who doesn’t love Pop-Tarts? But the highly clickable search terms are present as well, including the phrase “relationship status,” an identifier popularized by Facebook as a way for users to broadcast whether or not they’re dating someone.
This is profitable internet gold, designed and executed by a digital native. But rather than offering McMahon an internship or a job or a mentor to help foster her genius, BuzzFeed sent her water bottles and a recipe book.