Last December, in the thick of finals, I clicked on the BuzzFeed article "14 Films and Series You Should Add to Your List to Look Smarter."
I was surprised, once I opened the link, to see how many of the titles I hadn't watched before. I was also surprised, however, to see who had written it—or rather, who hadn't. Rather than by the usual 20-something writer, this piece had been drafted by Netflix itself.
Since then, I have only seen more and more articles written by so-called "BuzzFeed partners." Hyundai, in February, wrote a great article about how it feels to find your soul mate. And just this week, Spotify tried to get me to sign up for a discounted premium account by telling me about all the great bands that got started on college campuses.
I think my hesitation toward the BuzzFeed partners' content has to do with what I believe BuzzFeed does as a site. Though it is a private business, BuzzFeed has become the repository for a kind of democratic wisdom generated by and for its users (ages 13 to 25, usually). Lists are now ubiquitous. We are all fluent in the language of GIFs and cute baby animals.
The site is, in many ways, predicated on a sense of community. Staff writers, generally the same age as the audience, write in solidarity with their readers. When someone from Westchester writes an article saying that Sal's makes the best slice of Sicilian in the county, I feel more connected to the place where I grew up. When I see an article praising the excellence that was Invader Zim, I feel as though my childhood has somehow been validated. And this, of course, is all because other peers are writing these articles. I am, by reading, sharing a common set of experiences.
To write BuzzFeed articles of their own, companies like Netflix and Hyundai have to pretend to be our peers. They have to act like a part of the community of readers in order to be writers, and the notion that they might succeed is what terrifies me. There is a significant difference between a peer making a quiz to help me find out what my spirit animal is, and Subaru making one to tell me which of its car models will best suit my idyllic weekend adventures.
Perhaps that's really what the problem is. No matter how chummy Netflix tries to get with me, I know it's just trying to sell me stuff, and my fear is that at some point, in the face of its feigned familiarity, I'll forget that. I'm scared that with their attempts to join the community, we will confuse these companies for actual members, and take their suggestions as something more than cheap attempts to "appeal to the youths" (I'm assuming this is the phrase they use in meetings).
I'm scared that in behaving like peers, in this age of social, user-driven media, they will become the true engines of taste, and that in embracing the viral and the popular, we'll incidentally embrace the engineered and the corporate. We made Ellen's Oscar selfie the most popular tweet of all time. But Samsung still made that tweet, and we didn't bat an eye at how contrived the whole thing was.
Granted, this is nothing new. Five film companies pick which 10 movies will be in theaters at a given time. Z100 insists that I tolerate Lorde, and Disney insists that "Let It Go" is not a farcically average song. But it somehow feels different when these companies enter a space we consider our own and claim that they belong there. (I have, for the record, never praised BuzzFeed in my life as much as I am doing in this article.)
Then again, maybe this is just BuzzFeed, and I need to calm down. I still can't help but feel, though, that this is different from the radio, or the movies, or television. Not just anyone tells us to find something cute; not just anyone tells us to enjoy reminiscing about old Nintendo games. BuzzFeed is made for and by its users, and it should continue that way—unless, of course, we believe that Netflix, too, knows just how good a slice from Sal's really is.