I love The Onion. I really do. I think it’s a national treasure, a peerless source of political satire, and it makes me genuinely laugh out loud at least once every time I visit. I wish it every success. Its freshly launched spinoff site Clickhole, though — well, I’m not sure, put it that way. The idea of a site parodying BuzzFeed, Upworthy, and all the other viral content farms that fill everyone’s Facebook feeds with cat GIFs and inspirational videos seems laudable enough — but there’s something lacking in the execution, and also a feeling that this is a somewhat cynical exercise in luring readers into… well, a clickhole.
Clickhole seems like an uncharacteristic misstep for a couple of reasons. First, it’s late — making fun of BuzzFeed and listicles in general was a fun thing to do a couple of years back, but they’re so much a part of the media landscape now that satirizing them seems kinda redundant. Everyone knows BuzzFeed is ridiculous, and ridiculously successful, and everyone clicks regardless. And look, there are only so many jokes you can make about “The 10 Most LOLtastic Dogs on Pornhub” or “The Spanish Civil War Explained in Cat GIFs” before the whole thing gets tired.
Sure, on the evidence of what they’ve posted so far, Clickhole certainly does a creditable job of making fun of the entire viral media phenomenon (“16 Pictures Of Beyoncé Where She’s Not Sinking In Quicksand”! “10 Hilarious Chairs That Think They’re People”!). But still, this is nothing that The Awl or the myriad fake BuzzFeed accounts you can find on Twitter haven’t been doing for years. (And actually, some of the best BuzzFeed satire is coming from BuzzFeed itself: this, for instance, is art, dammit.)
More than anything, this feels like late-era Mad magazine — satirizing whatever’s popular for little discernible purpose. The Onion‘s own satire is almost never like this — it’s the best sort of satire, in that it often reflects reality better than reality does. How often have you said to yourself, “Y’know, we are basically living in The Onion?” Probably about two days ago, right?
By comparison, Clickhole is kinda lightweight. Which, fine, not everything can be uncomfortably cutting political satire. But more subtly, it’s also a way for The Onion to have its cake and eat it, too. Because, look, Clickhole is a site that’s designed with the express purpose of getting you to click on a bunch of stuff. The site is, of course, entirely open about this: “ClickHole has one and only one core belief: All web content deserves to go viral.” It’s all part of the joke: click on as much stuff as possible! This is hilarious!
But this doesn’t change the fact that Clickhole is built to get all those sweet, sweet pageviews — something that the brand of beef jerky that’s paid to advertise all over the site’s launch doubtless appreciates a great deal. On one level, this is exactly the sort of cleverness one might expect from The Onion, and they’ve already been doing something similar on their main site with their idiosyncratic slideshows (personal favorite: 10 AMAZING, Totally WTF Brick Photos.)
It also seems more than a little cynical, though. No doubt the site’s editors would claim that the fact that people are clicking is all part of the joke, but I dunno, can you build an entire website and brand around one joke? Even if that joke’s on your readers? If the flood of clickbait is a negative trend that deserves ridicule — and, on balance, I think it is, although BuzzFeed does publish some pretty great stuff as well as endless lists and quizzes to find out which Westeros denizen you are — then surely the last thing a publication taking a principled stand against it wants to be doing is creating more clickbait, regardless of whether they’re doing so in an ironic way or not.
(Now, please do click through to some other articles on Flavorwire, OK? Cheers.)