Buzzfeed, Foreign Policy and storytelling

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who did a double take at Foreign Policy’s list post that compared 14 photos of Vladimir Putin to 14 photos of hairless cats – in some the resemblance was uncanny. It was part of a series of posts the magazine’s staff carried on Foreign Policy’s website yesterday after they decided to ‘look at the world through BuzzFeed’s eyes for a day’. Jihadi rap and North Korea also received the Buzzfeed treatment. The short series followed an op-ed written by Buzzfeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith where he suggested that the viral web isn’t just for cats and Ryan Gosling, but instead the same techniques could be used to report on more complex issues such as the topics regularly covered by Foreign Policy.

Buzzfeed is the current wonder kid with 40 million monthly users who enjoy a mix of irreverent pop-culture lists, recipes, celebrity news, gifs and some pretty darn good political reporting. Its influence is stretching far and wide as other publishers rapidly adopt scrolling, photo-heavy, light text lists that add up to some, preferably quirky, number.

The Buzzfeed list format makes for a pleasant user experience. It’s scrollable (good for most devices), there are no click-through-page-impression-gathering galleries, minimal text means it’s perfect for weary brains and crucially the over-arching voice/tone is familiar sounding – like something your most hilarious friend might say.

I don’t think I’ve seen any format spread quite as fast as the Buzzfeed list. Of course lists existed before Buzzfeed, but it took the list and put the user first. Whether it was just a one-day experiment or not at Foreign Policy the Buzzfeed format has now truly crossed the line from the viral funny web of bunnies and childhood nostalgia to telling stories about serious topics.

There are two subtle points here. The first that serious people are using the Buzzfeed format to tell serious stories, yes as an experiment, but if it drives traffic and makes complex issues easily digestible you can be sure they’ll use it again (who doesn’t want to appeal to the demographic that gives your stories the greatest viral bounce?). The second is that with copycats (some good, some bad) springing up everywhere, how long can Buzzfeed keep its edge?

Buzzfeed, because it looked at online storytelling in a radical and different way, has perfected a powerful storytelling format, but for how long can you keep something, which is ultimately formulaic, fresh? If it can apply that different perspective again and find other new ways to tell stories and engage readers as competition heats up (as it always does on the web, and the spread of the Buzzfeed list is a great example of) they might just be able to stay ahead.

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