Gates: Buzzfeed is for more than killing time


Matt Gates, Columnist

It’s 11 p.m. You have a paper to write and a problem set to finish. What do you do? Maybe you finish it all in time to get a good night’s sleep. Maybe you turn on the TV and convince yourself you’re going to multitask. Or, if you’re like a lot of the students I’ve met at Northwestern, you click a link on the favorites bar: Buzzfeed or another clickable, listicle site.

Reading over the list of “20 Foods You Miss Most from the 90’s,” watching a video of an episode of “Game of Thrones” being explained by people who’ve never watched the show before or taking a quiz on which Spongebob character you are can all seem preferable to productivity. However, some serious topics have managed to make their way onto listicle sites. The unique format of Buzzfeed and similar sites gives them the ability to address their target under-40 demographic about certain topics in ways other publications cannot.

Trying to fully inform oneself using Buzzfeed is like trying to ace Russian Lit using Sparknotes: It’s sure to not end well. However, both provide highlights to accompany more expansive sources. Buzzfeed’s unique offering of lists, pictures and quizzes, as opposed to lengthy text, sparks interest in the topics it covers. Readers can then research an issue more fully using other sources.

For example, students in my dorm and I have taken the “How Privileged Are You?” quiz on Buzzfeed, but it hasn’t fully informed us about the issues regarding privilege in America. However, it may have made us think more about the serious issue of privilege in society. Some of the checklist points had to do with the things that one comes to find with privilege, like money and access to education. Others might have been less obvious, like prescription medication abuse. Taking this Buzzfeed quiz could hopefully lead students to do further research. They might discover that one in three college students will abuse a prescription medication during his or her college career, while drug shortages are still an issue in the U.S. with the number of drugs declared in short supply peaking at 251 in 2011.

Buzzfeed’s unique formatting allows it to display lists of tweets and other social media posts to demonstrate public opinion on current issues. The site created listicles of the racist and homophobic tweets in response to a black actress portraying a Hunger Games character and an Olympic swimmer coming out. Buzzfeed listicles of instances of racism and homophobia cannot begin to fully explain the numerous complicated factors involved in these issues. However, they do give a unique vantage point from which to look at them.

Buzzfeed is not the The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, and no one should expect it to be. Next time you are on Buzzfeed, make note that if you were a Harry Potter character, you’d be Hagrid, and remember to check out the list of the 18 types of people you’ll meet in college. But if you do run across something more serious, take a look and be sure to read up on it elsewhere as well.

Matt Gates is a Weinberg freshman. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].