The Onion goes social

"America's finest news source" just launched ClickHole, a viral parody site

If the future of the internet belongs to creators of clickbait—that oversexed, underreported detritus filling your Facebook feed that you just can’t help checking out—then the future of satire will belong to those who mock it. The editors of the Onion, the nation’s premier fake news source since 1988, are betting that this kind of content will be around long enough to make it worth building a fake-clickbait brand, and so last week they launched ClickHole, a portal to items such as “Woman Takes One Photo Of Herself Every Day For A Week,” and “16 Incredible GIFs We Would Make If We Knew How.” ClickHole perfectly captures the feel-good smarm and twee silliness of content designed to go viral on social media.

“We’re facing all the same pressures anyone in the media world faces,” says Ben Berkley, managing editor of the Onion and ClickHole. “We need to achieve scale and try new things. Clickbaiting and viral content is ever-present in everyone’s life online. It’s so pervasive it’s ripe for parody. We noticed when we dabbled in this area with The Onion, doing slideshows, our readers really responded to that.”

Mocking journalism’s low and middlebrow efforts at mass appeal is written into the Onion’s DNA. In the 1990s that was newspapers, In the mid-2000s it was cable TV news, and now it is viral Web content.

“A lot of the Onion’s features were originally a parody of USA Today: a dumbed-down, colorful, broad, mainstream interpretation of a newspaper,” notes Adam Albright-Hanna, a contributing writer for ClickHole. “ClickHole is the new media version of that.”

This is not the Onion’s first foray into a different genre. In 2007 it launched the Onion News Network, in which carefully coiffed anchors deliver deadpan reports akin to the Onion’s classic, “local man does something banal” archetype, and hyperbolic mockery of social trends such as foodie-ism and gentrification. “When cable news was reaching its fever pitch in 2007, that’s when the Onion News Network was born,” notes Berkley. If social-media driven Web content is the medium of the moment, then the Onion will naturally expand into mimicking that too.

Just as ClickHole is an extension of the Onion’s digital content strategy, CashHole, the sponsored-content section of ClickHole, is a continuation of the Onion’s digital-revenue strategy. Last summer, The Onion started carrying sponsored content. The items are generated by the editorial staff, but they are on topics relevant to the advertiser, such as technology for Adobe or taxes for H&R Block. ClickHole and CashHole are following the same model.

As USA Today reported in October 2013, dwindling print advertising revenues have compelled the Onion to shift resources into digital ventures, whose ranks ClickHole now joins:

At its peak, The Onion published and distributed its free paper in 18 markets around the country, using a mix of its own printing operations and partnering with local printers. Facing heavy competition for local ads and dwindling circulation, the Onion cut most of its locally printed papers and distributes them in only three markets - Chicago, Providence, R.I., and Milwaukee. In late 2012, the company shuttered its national print edition, a subscription product that had about 10,000 customers at its peak but was rapidly losing readers.

In just its first day, ClickHole nailed many of the gimmicky genres of cheaply produced content that dominate the social Web: the vapid gallery of celebrity photos, the faux-naive listicle, the quiz that offers to tell you something inane about yourself, the headline promising a revelation when the story has nothing to reveal.

One possible challenge to ClickHole’s long-term prospects: Whereas items in the Onion mostly mock some aspect of American society using straightlaced newspaper style, most items in ClickHole seem mainly to mock the style and format of clickbait itself. The only point to an item like, “Is Aerosmith Angry At You?” is making fun of BuzzFeed’s silly quizzes. It’s clever, but so are lots of similar, short-lived Tumblrs. Mocking social Web-optimized content might be harder to sustain over the long haul, since the basic joke will grow old.

Although Clickhole insists it is not mocking any specific site or handful of sites, certain outlets—BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Upworthy, and Viralnova are the most obvious—clearly inspired many of the items. The targets of their mockery, though, say they are honored to serve as inspiration. And they are just as optimistic about ClickHole’s future as that of their own sites. Ryan Grim, Washington bureau chief for The Huffington Post, says that he thinks ClickHole will eventually branch out into weightier satire, just as HuffPost has built up a vast newsroom alongside its original aggregation and unpaid celebrity blogging.

“What they are best at is ridiculing the substance provided by the media,” says Grim, referring to the Onion. “And that’s in many ways what they’re doing here, though it’s combined with a critique of the form, too. But, for instance, we cover war, budget issues, poverty, inequality, and all sorts of things that don’t fit into a stereotypical approach to viral content, which means that the Onion can ridicule anything of substance it wants in this new form. Form doesn’t dictate content, in other words, for us or for them.”

One can start to see that shift towards more substantial, or sharper-edged, social commentary in a story ClickHole posted Tuesday, “How One Nonprofit Is Helping Orphans Of The Iraqi Conflict Avenge Their Parents’ Deaths.” Berkley acknowledges the temptation to just make fun of dumb clickbait itself, but says he is confident ClickHole will produce more substantial social commentary as it finds its voice. “It’s very easy to make this site a time capsule of what’s going on in the internet right now,” says Berkley. “We want to make this not just about the providers, but about the users. The way people click and share content is a part of our lives. It’s yet another mirror we can hold up to society. ClickHole is going to be relevant as long as clickbait content is around.”

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Ben Adler is a staff writer for Grist and a contributor to CJR. Tags: , ,