Buzzfeed is successful. Wildly successful. Since its founding in 2006, its risen to meteoric heights and become one of the most visited and ubiquitous sites on the entire internet. The formula is simple – write as many posts as possible, use lots of pictures and appeal to everyone’s inner desire to relive their youth, particularly if they’re a 90s kid. Hey, here’s 26 pictures of that thing you remember liking as a child, or gifs of Kanye West that express your feelings towards Mondays. It’s irreverent, extremely easy to digest and there’s something for literally everyone.
Buzzfeed have been accused of dumbing down the internet with their oversaturation of this formula and its subsequent influence on sites like Upworthy, but it’s not as simple as that. Buzzfeed have to make money, and that means appealing to the most populous groups of individuals, going for style over substance. There are exceptions to the rule but the success of the formula is hard to deny when you look at websites with similar tactics, such as the Huffington Post and Bleacher Report.
It’s understandable, but that doesn’t make it any easier to embrace.
I’ve talked about my issues with Buzzfeed Books before, notably editor Isaac Fitzgerland’s decision to omit negative reviews from the site, stating people in the online books community “understand that about books, that it is something that people have worked incredibly hard on, and they respect that. The overwhelming online books community is a positive place.” Indeed, its this admirable but painfully naïve policy that represents everything wrong with Buzzfeed Books. What could have been a new step up the ladder of critical writings, a site with the tools and resources to blend traditional with modern and appeal straight to the fans, has become a bland receptacle for recycled ideas, samey lists and a false sense of optimism. Buzzfeed Books is everything wrong with book blogging.
Let’s go back to Fitzgerald’s original ethos of positivity. It reinforces the idea that all negative criticism is inherently a terrible thing with no merit to readers or writers. Being critical just brings people down, it doesn’t bring anything worthy to the table, so the thinking goes. This is patently false, as are Fitzgerald’s assumptions of what the book blogging community represents. The community isn’t a united group of like-minded readers, for one thing. It’s made up of a variety of groups with different aims and pleasures, and there will inevitably be those bloggers who choose not to write negative reviews. That’s understandable. Most of us aren’t making any money out of this hobby so why do things that lessen our enjoyment of it? Fitzgerald, however, is being paid to do what he does, and he and the site have chosen to explicitly omit one of the most important elements needed to create a thriving online literary community – varying opinions. Then again, I’ve never personally found it especially positive to force such optimistic feelings.
Buzzfeed Books has good content, which is what makes everything else so disappointing. Anne Helen Petersen’s analysis of Nicholas Sparks’s work provided a fascinating contextual study of a wildly popular but much maligned writer. McKay Coppins’s piece on the sliding popularity of books by conservative politicians explained its central topic clearly and accessibly.
But then you have everything else on the site. On the front page today we have:
“14 Rad Scented Candles Inspired By Books.”
“27 Hunger Games Puns You Can’t Help But Laugh At.”
“26 Stunning Harry Potter Tattoos That Will Give You The Feels.”
“14 Simply Thought-Provoking Quotes From Marcel Proust.”
“Here’s How To Ask Someone Out Using a John Green Quote.”
The majority of these posts have nothing but pictures and a line or two of descriptive text. You get the feeling the writers just browsed Tumblr for ideas and lifted them without much editing. There’s a place for these kinds of posts, and I’ve read and enjoyed many of them, but this is basically all Buzzfeed Books is, with a few exceptions as noted above. They’re fluff with little to no substance, they aim low and appeal to everyone and nobody at the same time. It’s a wholly unambitious mish-mash of pictures you’ve seen elsewhere and stuff you like. John Green, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games feature prominently because they’re popular and appeal to the extremely profitable teen demographic. It’s all business but that doesn’t mean one has to sacrifice quality, especially since Buzzfeed have a strong enough foundation to support something more interesting.
Buzzfeed has massive influence over internet discourse, and yet they seem to be taking that potential and pushing it to the side while they pander to a false idea that thoughtless regurgitation equals positivity. It’s disappointing but it’s not the be all and end all of book blogging. Opinions seldom vary, if there are any opinions at all, and the voices of the writers are indistinguishable. It’s a section void of charm, of personality or any distinctive term beyond relentlessly and blandly optimistic. As a result of this, there’s very little space given over to one of the driving debates in the book blogging community – diversity. Fitzgerald claims to understand what drives bloggers and book lovers, yet this very obvious omission betrays that. Sites like The Rumpus, The Toast and The Hairpin bring new and diverse voices to the forefront that open up intersectional discourse with some much needed variety and analytical thought.
Buzzfeed Book doesn’t need to be like those sites, or the New York Times Book Review, or any other site. It has the financial support, writing talent and seemingly infinite resources to carve a niche with both substance and a populist appeal. Instead, what we have is one of the more disappointing let-downs I’ve witnessed during my four years as a book blogger. The weird thing is that my writing of this post will probably result in claims I’m being too negative or I’m jealous or I just don’t get it. That’s all well and good. At least it’ll be a discussion worth having.