The hugely popular online meta-site Buzzfeed has spent the last few years solidifying a reputation as one of the most frequent web destinations for web-browsing Millennials. For those who aren’t familiar with the site’s distinctive blend of pop culture voyeurism, quirky videos, and obscure lists, clicking through the homepage can be more than a little overwhelming. Yet more than 25 million unique visitors consume its content each month, most of them coming via social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Buzzfeed is currently ranked as roughly the 70th most popular website in the U.S. and is disproportionately visited by college-educated young people. It would be fair to say, then, that Buzzfeed represents a snapshot of the popular zeitgeist among the plugged-in mainstream of middle- to upper middle-class American youth.
Buzzfeed’s “members” (anyone with a working internet connection can become one) post much of its content, which is then reviewed by the site’s editors, who select the pieces featured on the homepage each day. In this way, Buzzfeed represents the sort of open-source, collaborative, and user-driven technological model that Yochai Benkler heralded in his 2007 book, The Wealth of Networks. It is perhaps troubling that so much of what makes it to the front page on Buzzfeed, then, is undeniably asinine (recent selections include 17 Heart-Stopping Foods at the Iowa State Fair and 26 Reasons Grease 2 is Better Than Grease). Putting aside the vapidity of much of what appears on the site, Benkler’s prediction that the network revolution would satisfy our “emotional and psychological needs of companionship and mutual recognition” certainly seems to ring true in the Buzzfeed community, which serves as an echo chamber of sorts for young, reflexively liberal, media-obsessed, urban-dwelling twenty-somethings.
But for precisely the same reason, Buzzfeed represents the dangerous side of digital connectivity—namely, a false sense of uniformity posing as democratic collaboration. For the Buzzfeed community—especially the newly launched editorial section, which features investigative news pieces on politics and is run by a former Politico writer—frequently shuns and shames cultural conservatives and religious people. A recent popular Buzzfeed list disingenuously catalogued “7 Shocking Bible Verses You Probably Won’t Hear In Church,” claiming that the Bible gives sanction to infanticide and slavery, for example, and a user-posted flow-chart sarcastically instructs readers how to “determine which religion you should follow” (if you like eating bacon and “think underwear can be magical,” the chart suggests, you should be a Mormon). Gay marriage is unequivocally and uncritically presented as a civil-rights issue, and opponents of gay marriage are not infrequently treated with blind scorn.
If this sort of cultural groupthink is not surprising, it should still be taken seriously by cultural and religious conservatives, especially inasmuch as it prevents them from effectively communicating with an important demographic.
There are signs to suggest that Buzzfeed’s readers are yearning for something more than the shallow nihilism and bald secularism currently on tap, however. A recent feature report written by internal Buzzfeed staff highlighted the story of Brittni Ruiz, a former adult film actress who left the porn industry after discovering faith in Jesus Christ. The piece portrayed Ruiz in an unironically favorable light and approvingly quotes a Christian pastor who says that pornography is “a misrepresentation of sex.” Though the piece ultimately trends towards a therapeutically individualistic dénouement (it concludes by quoting Ruiz saying she “never wants to be labeled”), it could rightly be said that for a website such as Buzzfeed, with the audience it serves, to admit that anything could be a “misrepresentation of sex” is a huge step in the right direction.
As another example of the counter-narrative currently emerging on Buzzfeed, the site recently featured a list of the 12 Greatest Quotations from Metropolitan, Whit Stillman’s deeply conservative film about the passing away of the “urban haute bourgeoisie.” Metropolitan examines the moral angst of living in a thoroughly democratic age and embodies what Mark Henrie has called a healthy “Christian humanis[m]”—yet Buzzfeed ran an article calling it “the movie you should be watching right now.” These articles and others like them can serve as a model of sorts for those who do not buy into the regnant doctrines of modern liberalism but who still want to engage with a generation on terms that will make sense to it.
Maybe, in an admittedly small way, this is what Benedict XVI’s New Evangelization looks like. When Benedict encouraged a “re-proposing” of the Gospel to “those regions [of the world] where the roots of Christianity are deep but who have experienced a serious crisis of faith due to secularization,” he could have easily had in mind those apathetic, disillusioned, and over-stimulated American Millenials who frequent websites like Buzzfeed. More recently, while speaking from the beach at Rio de Janeiro during World Youth Day, Pope Francis encouraged the young people listening to make “a mess” in the wider culture and he urged the Church to stop “closing ourselves off within ourselves.” Surely Buzzfeed represents one realm of popular culture where young believers can go and make “a mess” if only by upsetting the hegemonic forces of liberal opinion and silly narcissism that currently reign there.
If engagement with culture is really our goal, then places like Buzzfeed—whether we like it or not—are bellwethers for our success. We are currently losing that battle, but there are small reasons for hope.
Travis LaCouter is a Regional Program Officer with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. He is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross.