The men and women at the Onion are a funny gang. They're going to need all the funny they can get for ClickHole, a new standalone project that satirizes viral media. With the tagline, "Because all content deserves to go viral," this spoof of "the online social experience" has already grabbed a lot of attention.
But does ClickHole actually work? As they say on the Internet, The Answer May Surprise You.
It's not that the Onion doesn't have the comic chops. It's more that its targets -- click-baiting aggregate sites like BuzzFeed, Upworthy and BuzzWorthy -- are already so shallow and inane they practically satirize themselves.
Last week's launch of ClickHole offered some hilarious bits. It's hard to imagine how the writers can maintain this comedic level, though, when their mission is to expose an idiocy that most social-media users already half-acknowledge. Satire functions best when it deflates pretension, challenges fanatical certainty, reveals hypocrisy.
Nothing that ideologically resolute is going on at these sites. The producers are driven mostly by a cynical tendency to grab material that will maximize traffic. Consumers, meanwhile, are motivated mostly by low-grade desperation, a mix of apathy, boredom, workplace procrastination and minimal expectations. Most people scrolling already know that the "curated" content is crap.
In many ways, ClickHole's attack on what's been called "the Viral-Industrial Complex" is a logical update of the Onion's ongoing satire of media, which started with newspapers and later moved on to cable news. ClickHole's logo looks like a graphic depiction of the infinite time-suck of the web, suggesting a swirling, self-replicating vortex of listicles, quizzes, GIFs, fake uplift, faux controversy and misleading headlines. (You'll be Shocked! You Won't Believe! You Need To See! One Weird Trick!)
Certainly, we need to examine the ways our online lives are cluttered with trivia and misinformation, trapped in a robo-generated loop of page views and ad revenue. In its fake mission statement, ClickHole expresses its goal of bringing together "clickable, irresistibly shareable content" -- "content," in this case, being the Internet term used to mean the exact opposite of content, things like precocious children, grumpy cats and otters holding hands.
This lack of substance could prove problematic for ClickHole. While the Onion is genius at satirizing form, it also possesses an old-school commitment to satirizing content, upholding satire's traditional function as social and political commentary. Entering the wading pool of viral media, ClickHole has fewer issues to go after. The satire works more at a meta-level, by skewering the whole process of online time-wasting. And while this may be laudable, it could prove hard to sustain, laugh-wise.
Another potential problem involves the difficulty of differentiating between the parody and the source material. BuzzFeed spews out dozens of items that seem almost pre-satirized. What more can you say, satirically speaking, about 13 Potatoes That Look Like Channing Tatum or 15 Hedgehogs With Things That Look Like Hedgehogs.
The same goes for Upworthy headlines, with their queasy combo of good intentions and traffic-driving tease: "Watch The First 54 Seconds. That's All I Ask. You'll Be Hooked After That, I Swear." Upworthy's invitations are so bad that they're basically identical to those found at upworthygenerator.com, a parody site. "Watch A Blind Animal Rights Activist Become A Hero With Three Words" is clever satire. It's also impossible to distinguish from the real thing.
I don't want to sound too negative. ClickHole pulls off some swell opening gambits. The supposedly saucy "Sexual IQ" quiz includes questions about dung beetle reproduction. An Upworthy-style count-your-blessings video mixes stock feel-good images with repeated pictures of bug-eyed actor Gary Sinise. The "Which Mad Men Character Are You?" feature begins with the standard questions, but skewers quiz-takers: "Look, just to be upfront about this, you're not going to get Don Draper. Everyone who takes this quiz wants Draper, but it almost never happens."
ClickHole makes comedy out of the Internet's worst features -- celebrity worship, junk science, misattributed quotations and bait-and-switch ploys. The site also makes serious points, reminding us that viral media are not the best way to source history, politics or hard news. A ClickHole piece that opens with the header, "What was D-Day?" doesn't ask a rhetorical question. It really doesn't know. Another blogger pleads: "Can Somebody Tell Me What Monsanto Is So I Can Hate It?"
The writers demonstrate how infotainment looks harmless but can devolve into an echo-chamber of idiocy.
At the same time, ClickHole risks ending up in an impossible position. In one of its "cute kid" videos, an adorable moppet explains about monetizing Internet traffic and the way expanding page views drive advertising dollars. But it will be hard for ClickHole to skewer clickbait sites without taking the bait.
And ClickHole could be undone by the same "shareable media experience" it spoofs. Floating in Facebook, how will ClickHole's 10 Hilarious Chairs That Think They're People be any different from a BuzzFeed list?
To succeed, ClickHole will have to walk the tightrope between satire and reality. That's the paradox of the 21st-century condition: Just when we most need good satire, it becomes harder and harder to pull off.