Retrospective: ClickHole turns one
Today, June 12, marks the first birthday of satirical site ClickHole. That’s assuming they aren’t messing with us, of course, but it seems about right considering I first stumbled upon the site last summer. ClickHole is a project of The Onion, founded following the company’s decision to stop producing print issues.
The move to create ClickHole was a logical decision on The Onion’s part. While The Onion still creates some good content, the internet has allowed for satirical material to pile up. This causes a lot of satire to come across as tired and unfunny, especially in the case of The Onion, which has to pump out content regularly.
While the front page of a print paper containing satire may make for a good novelty, The Onion needed a new flash in the pan to stay on top in the age of the internet. It found that inspiration by attacking two (unfortunately) sacred cows: Buzzfeed and Upworthy.
Buzzfeed and Upworthy are both examples of clickbait websites. Their articles use provocative, open-ended titles to get clicks, allowing them to drive up traffic and generate ad revenue. The reason these and other clickbait websites are “sacred cows” has to do with just how manipulative their titles are. Buzzfeed articles often follow the formula of “___ things YOU do when you’re ___,” meaning they manipulate readers by convincing them that what is listed on their sites—often ridiculously captioned GIFs—is somehow a part of their identities. Meanwhile, Upworthy hosts somewhat more meaningful, often equity-based content, but gets clicks through using painfully formulaic and saccharine articles titles such as, “YOU’ve never heard of ___ but it will move YOU to tears.”
ClickHole saw through the bullshit and realized that “YOUR identity” and “the thing YOU will care about,” as manipulated by clickbait sites, can be made fun of. Some of their earliest hits went straight for the target. “What This Adorable Little Girl Says Will Melt Your Heart” is a direct attack where a little girl gives a two-minute speech on clickbait sites, noting that getting ad revenue for just posting a video or slideshow is an easy way to avoid having to write an actual article.
Upworthy posts, written by so called “Currators,” can, at times, have minimal articles that follow the formula, “At _:_ _ they laughed, but by _:_ _ they are on their feet.” ClickHole did not spare this approach either, recently publishing the all too literal “They Laughed At First, But Then They Were On Their Feet.”
Other early hits include “This Video Seems Silly, But It Makes A Good Point,” a knock at Upworthy’s glossy, superficial presentation of social justice issues, and the three hours six seconds long, “This Stick Of Butter Is Left Out At Room Temperature; You Won’t Believe What Happens Next,” which speaks for itself. Later on came “10 Things Only I Will Understand,” a perfect tongue-in-cheek response to Buzzfeed’s titles.
However, ClickHole has faced and will continue to face two challenges: the challenge not to lose its soul, and the challenge of how its soul will be defined.
ClickHole’s challenge not to lose its soul is largely driven by the fact that it releases new content on every weekday. The result is an increasing gap in humour between its best and average releases. While some of their repetitive content approaches can still be funny, I enjoyed their recent, “How Many Of These Smiths Songs Have You Heard?” But it still lacks the pizzazz of their early attacks on Upworthy and BuzzFeed, which seemed to come out of nowhere.
While no one can expect all of a comic site’s material to be good, unfortunately, material does not have to be good to be shared. Just as unfunny Buzzfeed lists go viral, so too do meh ClickHole stories. As ClickHole produces more and more content, cynical internet users may increasingly see ClickHole as just another annoying version of the clickbait sites it supposedly parodies.
Another weak spot in ClickHole’s image is that some of its funding comes from native advertising companies. These companies write articles for the site that are meant to look like ClickHole articles, but actually function as ads. While these ads don’t ruin the site as a whole, it is kind of unfortunate that a site that mocks poorly-written, money-driven internet content has to accept (possibly) poorly-written, money-driven content.
The issue of how ClickHole will be defined is a more overtly political question. Some of ClickHole’s great pieces are indeed apolitical. I won’t spoil it, but I suggest you read “The Time I Spent On A Commercial Whaling Ship Totally Changed My Perspective On The World” in its entirety.
Yet many others do breach the topic of political theory. “7 Female CEOs Who Inspire Us All To Be Cogs In The Capitalist Machine” takes a jab at some of the rhetoric of neoliberal pop-feminism, while “The 8 DUMBEST Criminals Of All Time” rips on popular representations of crime that don’t take the social factors that lead to crime into account.
While articles like these speak to social justice issues in a far more eloquent way than any Upworthy pieces do, other articles, such as one about a “real-life Liz Lemon” (i.e., a woman who’s been missing since 2013) andanother where a prom date-less senior asks Kate Upton to kill him, could be seen as making light of the serious issues of gendered abduction and suicide.
I suppose it could be argued that the point of ClickHole’s more problematic-seeming articles is to draw attention to how established sources more subtly belittle similar stories. But without individual authors coming forward and discussing the thought process behind their work—though according to the website, it has no authors, and the content is spontaneously generated—it’s easy not only to feel uncomfortable about the articles in question, but also about the site's purpose in general. What if ClickHole’s sole purpose is mindless mockery? What if its seeming satires on reactionary politics are in fact just opportunistic attacks on satire targets that happen to be available?
One year into its existence, ClickHole can proudly claim to have made a mark on the internet. It has shown us that the clickbait emperors are naked, and how to draw yourself as Channing Tatum’s dad. However, freshness and coolness are hard acts to maintain. Can ClickHole establish a clear political image? Can it avoid becoming mundane? These are challenges that will not go away as the site enters its second year.