The party line is that satire newspaper-turned-digital-powerhouse The Onion is finally taking on the scourge of viral media with a new site called Clickhole. Actually, The Onion’s already been doing that for some time now, with mock slideshows and nostalgia bombs that, while hilarious, don’t fit with the publication’s staid newsprinty voice.
So The Onion’s diving into the #content abyss. Clickhole.com, which launches tomorrow, wants to do for new media what The Onion did for print journalism 25 years ago, mimicking the sites that have hijacked Facebook algorithms and weirdly taken over the Internet. It’s the first entirely new site The Onion has launched in more than five years and the culmination of a handful of small-scale BuzzFeed/Upworthy parodies that have flickered and fizzled, but never under a major publishing banner. It’ll also right some injustices, maybe:
Every day, 1 in 5 Americans goes to bed without seeing any viral content. Visit http://t.co/hhliADAgb6 tomorrow to help change that.— ClickHole (@ClickHole) June 11, 2014
The genius of parodying viral media is that you still benefit from its virality. A clicky headline will still get clicks, even if it’s meant in jest, just as a shocking Onion story will be read and shared by those too slow to catch the joke. But Clickhole’s editors say that confused readers and clueless shares will never be the site’s aim.
For some context behind the site’s eminently clickable vision, I spoke to Editor-in-Chief Jermaine Affonso, as well as Onion managing editor Ben Berkley, who’s concurrently serving as managing editor of Clickhole. The Q&A has been lightly condensed.
Newsweek: You are going to be the editor-in-chief of Clickhole.
Jermaine Affonso: I am going to be the editor of Clickhole.
Were you involved with The Onion before Clickhole came about?
JA: Yeah. I’ve been at The Onion for three years now. I was contributing a lot for the first year. I worked my way up to a writer. I was a senior writer at The Onion before I moved over to Clickhole.
Can you tell me about what the impetus for Clickhole was?
JA: Just like The Onion is a parody of newsprint and we have the Onion News Network that is a parody of cable news, we see Clickhole as a parody of the way the Internet is changing the way we all consume information in the new age. If The Onion is a parody of traditional media, Clickhole is a parody of new media.
Ben Berkley: The way that we generally work is making sure that as a creative entity we are satirizing what is out there and what’s, you know, just ripe for parody at the time. For this, we felt that the time was right. Clickbaiting viral content is ever present in everyone’s online lives. And we’ve hit critical mass on this stuff. It hasn’t really been dissected on such a large scale yet. When we dabbled in this area on The Onion, our readers really responded. Then, in turn, when The Clickhole project was finally announced, it was met with this great sense of catharsis. It was just born of it being the right time to tackle this medium.
Which is of course relevant, considering The Onion is now almost entirely a digital publication.
JA: Definitely. The Onion is still parodying how traditional media is dealing with this stuff. But Clickhole gives us a broader scope and allows us to target things that you can’t do through The Onion’s news voice.
JA: We’re really excited about things like lists and quizzes. Those types of things we can’t do in The Onion in a really straight news-voice kind of way. There are a lot of shorter article types that we can do. Maybe exclusive photos that just leaked, coverage of celebrity or entertainment-y news that might not fit in the box of The Onion’s hard news voice.
The Onion has been running slideshows for a little while now. Do you see this as a way to take those features and give them their own home?
JA: Yeah, definitely. As time has gone on and this stuff has become more pervasive, it felt like, “Hey, let’s take everything on. Let’s give all this stuff a home where it can live and breathe and attract its own audience.”
My favorite of those slideshows was “51 Blank Slides.”
JA: Oh yeah. That’s a good one. Yep.
Is this the first new site you’ve launched in a long time?
BB: Yeah, it’s a big moment for our company. This is a serious investment in expanding the reach of our satire. There are not many places making investments in creatively driven initiatives. This will be our first major comedic property that we’ve launched since Onion News Network arrived in 2007. We have the intention to grow this into a long-term property that will be a mainstay in the comedy world much like The Onion has become over the last 25 years.
Do you have a team of writers separate from The Onion? Will they be jumping back and forth?
JA: We do have a separate team of writers. But a lot of people have come on from being top-level contributors at The Onion, so a lot of the same DNA will exist between The Onion and Clickhole. But we will be focused exclusively on building up the site and writing jokes for the site.
What about heartwarming stories that go viral but turn out to be untrue—how do you see that fitting in with Clickhole?
JA: With all that heartwarming stuff, I think our instinct is always to make it a lot darker and more sinister and present it like it’s heartwarming. That’s the kind of thing we can’t necessarily do on The Onion directly.
What viral news sites do you read?
BB: [We’re] trying to be in tune with the zeitgeist rather than following any one specific site. I wouldn’t say that I really am a devoted reader of any of these sites.
JA: I’m not really a big viral news reader. I’ve been looking at all sorts of stuff as research for this site. You know, I kind of look at all the big ones. My strategy is really to go on Facebook and see what my friends have been sharing and what has caught their eye and look at how many likes that thing got.
A lot of BuzzFeed, I imagine.
JA: BuzzFeed’s definitely going to play a big role in our approach to the site. But we’re really going after the entire Internet and how it’s impacting culture. I know it sounds sort of daunting, but all of these web sites are kind of being forced down this route where you have to make content more profitable and more clickable. Finding specific trends on every site really hasn’t been that hard.
BB: In the grand Onion tradition, the site will be a full, scathing social commentary, this time largely focused on that concept of viral content and the methods behind that content. Also, to a certain extent, it’s not just pointing at the content providers but also the users. There’s something very interesting about the things people click on and the way people share that content. It’s yet another mirror that our collective, creative team can hold up to society.
Have you been in touch with anyone who works at somewhere like BuzzFeed or Upworthy? Do you have any moles inside the system?
JA: We don’t. For us, that part of the process isn’t as interesting as the way people interact with it. It’s almost not so much the content itself—I think we see these lists and stuff as more of an outlet for new and exciting jokes, as opposed to being focused solely on taking them down. With a lot of Onion stuff, it’s really a good way to put a mirror back on the reader. The people who read these sites and share this content, [they] make it popular.
The Onion used to have a very lengthy process workshopping headlines and jokes. These days it’s much more tied to the breaking news cycle, which seems like a shift to Internet news sensibilities. Will Clickhole follow that daily news cycle in a similar way?
JA: Definitely. The idea of The Onion was to get more responsive with our content. [With] the impetus of starting Clickhole, that was already there to begin with. There was no question in our minds that we really have to be responding to things. I don’t think it will conflict with The Onion because we’ll be responding to slightly different types of news stories, maybe a little more focused on an entertainment-y story as opposed to a hard-core political story. But we will definitely be in similar areas at times.
With The Onion, there’s always the possibility that people don’t realize it’s a joke. Those people might also share the articles, which is good for your traffic, I realize.
BB: It’s certainly possible, though that’s never going to be our intent. For us, it’s just: this is something that we’re all really interested in, creating very engaging, refreshing content that is befitting of The Onion name. It will have certain similarities to The Onion. It shares that same DNA. Clickhole will be taking the same creative process, the same unique mix of subversion, charm, bite, lunacy, and social criticism that defines The Onion and has made it so special. What Clickhole can do is expand all of that into a whole new medium.
JA: The one thing we learned from The Onion is if you want to parody something, you really have to ape its style. The site is definitely going to look like a clickbait website, but once you look at the content you’re going to immediately realize it’s not. When The Onion was a newspaper, it looked exactly like The New York Times. And then you’d see the top story was a photo of the Sears tower encased in strawberry Jell-O.
Do you think The Onion will be able to parody the rise of explanatory journalism as the “next big thing” in media?
JA: Can you explain that to me? I probably know this, but maybe don’t know the term.
Sure. Vox.com is the new web venture from Ezra Klein. The tag line is basically “Explain the news.” Whatever big news is going on, Vox will explain “what you need to know.” It’s been a high-profile launch, and it’s also been the target of some mocking.
JA: Just like we want Clickhole to kind of expand and go after different parts of the Internet as the Internet evolves, I’m sure The Onion will take on what it has to when that evolves.
Where did the name Clickhole come from?
JA: That’s a great story, actually. What we ended up doing is getting the entire Onion editorial staff in a room, along with the entire Onion News Network staff, and we all pitched a bunch of ideas on a big list. Those two sides work very separately, so having us all in one room together is very rare. We were going to pick a name, and that was the first name someone picked off a list. They said, “You know what, I like Clickhole.” Everyone said, “I like Clickhole! Yeah, it’s great.” We went with it. There was very little discussion. We had a lot of options, but it jumped out as us immediately. You can’t second-guess something like that.