ClickHole writers explain their craft: How the Onion’s Internet parody spinoff became the best thing online.

How ClickHole Became the Best Thing on the Internet

How ClickHole Became the Best Thing on the Internet

Arts, entertainment, and more.
June 8 2015 2:41 AM

Wow. ClickHole.

How the Onion spinoff designed to mock the Internet became the best thing on it.

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No judgment, but you waste a lot of time on the internet, right? Which means sometime in the past year or so, something like this happened: You’re on Facebook, and you see that a friend has shared an interesting-looking article, such as a map of the United States with the headline “We Can Determine Which State You’re From Just From the Way You Answer This One Simple Question.” Wait, you think, is this that New York Times dialect map—the one you read already? Or did someone make an even better version of the quiz?

Dan Kois Dan Kois

Dan Kois edits and writes for Slate’s culture department. He is writing a book called How to Be a Family and co-writing, with Isaac Butler, an oral history of Angels in America.

So you click, and there’s the map, and some introductory text you kind of skim—“The regional dialects … words you use … we can pinpoint exactly which state”—and the question “What do you call the article of clothing you wear on your legs?” And then a long, long list of possible answers, all of them insane. “Knee Curtains”? “Gam Quivers”? “Lucifer’s Hotrods”? Bewildered, you click one of the options (“The One Garment”) and the quiz tells you that you are from Massachusetts. You are not from Massachusetts. As far as you can tell, there are 50 options, each one presumably affixed to a different state, all of them absurd. What is this thing? Who made it? Where are you?

You’re on ClickHole. ClickHole launched a year ago as a spinoff of the Onion, its editor a longtime staffer for that venerable satirical newspaper, its staff made up mostly of Onion writers. (The publications still share a managing editor.) ClickHole spoofs the kinds of buzzy articles that feed your social Web experience. You know, buzzing, feedy things that buzz all over your feed. What? OK, yes, ClickHole is, among other things, a satire of BuzzFeed and its utter mastery of the social Web. (According to staff writer Cullen Crawford, one name they floated for the site prelaunch was StuffFeed.) The day the site launched last June, it was rich with headlines pointing to clear BuzzFeed precedents: “Quiz: Is Your Dad Proud of You?”; “16 Pictures of Beyoncé Where She’s Not Sinking in Quicksand”; “Which Hungry Hungry Hippo Are You?” The entire site was branded by a beef jerky manufacturer in a way that called to mind BuzzFeed’s omnipresent sponsored content.

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But the site has grown and changed in the past year. ClickHole is now a small, prized cog in a growing and profitable media company. It’s not clear how much ClickHole contributes to the bottom line; the site’s editors wouldn’t share details. The beef jerky company is gone, and most of the Onion’s revenue is brought in by its in-house ad agency, Onion Labs. But the Atlantic reports that the company plans more independent site launches in the ClickHole mode, and according to Quantcast, the online traffic-measuring tool, ClickHole’s traffic has mostly held steady between 10 million and 15 million page views per month. Like many websites, ClickHole’s had game-changing mammoth viral hits; in November about 7 million people read what I believe to be ClickHole’s masterpiece, “’90s Kids Rejoice! The Spider Eggs They Used to Fill Beanie Babies Are Finally Hatching,” in part because at least a few social-Web visitors worried the threat was real. And as ClickHole has grown, the site’s moved away from being a simple BuzzFeed parody; instead it’s become richer, weirder, a darker reflection of our own dark times.

If you’re an avid Internet reader, you may not recall the moment when you first noticed ClickHole, but you definitely remember the moment your jaw first dropped at ClickHole. For me, it was the article “7 Classic ’90s Toys That Weren’t Fun Anymore After 9/11,” a tour de force mocking the generation-pandering I constantly saw on my Facebook feed. (“When those towers went down, something in you died forever and now Furby is nothing more than some fluff and plastic.”) I loved its audacity; I hated the reminder that online media, which I both make and consume avidly, panders so grossly to readers’ generational identities and employs such banal emotional shorthand for real-life tragic events. That is to say, when I read it, I simultaneously laughed and felt bad. It turns out this is the platonic ideal of a response to a ClickHole story.

How does the site, with its small staff of young writers and editors tucked around a few tables at the Onion’s Chicago offices, generate so many stories that make me laugh really hard? And why do so many of these stories also make me feel bad? And what does it mean to make a website that does both of these things—that makes extremely viral media, while ruthlessly satirizing the world of viral media? When I share stories from ClickHole, I share because a story made me chuckle; I also share out of a deep fear that the content business makes me a little less human. I share because the way Playboy embodied the voice of 1965, and Ms. embodied the voice of 1972, and Spy embodied the voice of 1988, ClickHole embodies the voice of our own misbegotten era. Mostly, I share ClickHole stories because ClickHole—in its cleverness, its fearlessness, and its weirdness—is literally the best website, and what do you do with stories from the best website but share them?

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On a warm day at the end of March, the writers and editors of ClickHole assembled in a sunny conference room for a headlines meeting. (I could describe the conference room, but instead will direct you to the ClickHole story “6 Tips for Throwing the Perfect Boardroom Tantrum,” which, thriftily, was photographed in that very space.) The first order of business was to grapple with whether a comedy site should even observe April Fools’ Day. There was general dismay around the table at the thought of the lame April Fools’ pranks other websites would pull the next day. “God, they’re so self-aware, and then everyone Likes them,” moaned Jamie Brew, the site’s associate editor.

“I like the Christmas idea,” someone said, referring to an agreeably daffy April Fools’ pitch on the last page of the printed ideas memo the writers were reviewing—a shareable image of a Christmas tree and the words Today is Christmas. Share if you agree! “Well,” chuffed writer Cullen Crawford, italics deeply embedded in his tone: “April Fools’ is Christmas to pranksters like us.” He turned to look at me, as did everyone else at the conference table. “Can you write that I was wearing sunglasses when I said that?”

Soon the team dug in for the hour-long process of systematically winnowing the pages of headline ideas. ClickHole editorial meetings tweak the famous Onion meeting model, memorably portrayed in a 2008 This American Life episode, in which writers pitch headline after headline in hopes a few will be assigned as full stories. At ClickHole, instead of writers pitching a dozen of their own ideas, headline proposals are collected on a long memo without writers’ names attached, and staffers advocate for others’ ideas, not their own. (In fact, it’s considered gauche to pitch your own headline.) So rather than talk about hundreds of ideas, only a few of which will make it to print, participants in the ClickHole edit meeting discuss only the ideas that at least one disinterested party thinks are worthwhile.

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“I thought No. 1 was pretty funny,” Crawford offered. We all looked down at our six-page printouts to find No. 1: “BLOG: We Need to Stop Teaching Our Girls That It’s OK to Think Chris Webber Was a Complete Basketball Player.” Crawford, trying on the headline for size, put on an outraged persona: “These girls are going to turn into women who think Chris Webber was a good all-around basketball player.”

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Jermaine Affonso, the editor of ClickHole, sat at the head of the table. He rarely chimed in to add to the jokes in the room; instead, he ushered the meeting along and asked the rest of the staff how they felt. Now he raised a concern. “I wonder if this sounds like a girls-and-sports thing? Like the joke is, girls aren’t into sports?”

Writer Adam Levine nodded. “Right, like, Girls Have Bad Opinions About Sports. That’s not what’s funny about it.”

“I’m sure that’s not at all what was meant,” said another writer, Matt Powers.

“You could just change it to ‘children,’ ” said Lauren Moser, ClickHole’s writing fellow. “And go from a parenting angle.” Soon, the entire table was off, rat-a-tat-tatting bits for the piece.

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“ ‘Look, we all know that player efficiency is the real measure of all-around success.’ ”

“ ‘An entire generation will be stuck with this backwards thinking!’ ”

“ ‘He was a shoot-first player—sure it’s glamorous, but it hurt the Kings.’ ”

“Should we tweet a photo of Chris Webber that says ‘Teach the Controversy’ on it?”

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“ ‘I know you don’t want to talk to your kids about Chris Webber’ ”—

“Parents are talking about him—but as a complete player. ‘You’re talking to your kids about Chris Webber, but in the wrong way.’ ”

The conversation paused for a moment, everyone taking a quick breath as they prepared to launch a new salvo of gags. The session hadn’t just generated a bunch of good lines; it had homed in on the funniest, sharpest angle on the story, which was to pose it as the kind of hectoring, judge-y column that cautions against allowing a particularly objectionable belief to persist into the next generation of young people.

“So let’s do this with the new headline,” Affonso said quickly. “ ‘Children’ or ‘kids’?” The piece was assigned to one of the writers over email later that day. No real writer would be bylined, as with all ClickHole stories. Per the site’s founding legend, Affonso notes, “No one writes them. They just appear on the website. We are only here to make sure that they go viral.”

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A few weeks later, the post just appeared on ClickHole. (They chose “kids.”) I found it very satisfying to read. And yes, I shared it.

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A few years ago, the staff of the Onion began to realize that, while the publication would occasionally satirize Web-native publishing as opposed to the print news product that was its chief target, those stories “didn’t exactly fit on a website that’s a hard news parody,” Affonso told me. “We needed some kind of separate place.” In the spring of 2014, Affonso and the Onion’s managing editor, Ben Berkley, staffed up, hiring about half a dozen writers, pitching the new site as “a broader clickbait viral-media parody spinoff.”

ClickHole launched last June, immediately making clear the site’s desperate, near-psychopathic raison d’être: to bait clicks. “ClickHole has one and only one core belief,” its statement of purpose reads: “All web content deserves to go viral.” Its launch was accompanied by a wonderful video titled “What This Adorable Little Girl Says Will Melt Your Heart.” In the video, a pigtailed 8-year-old tells viewers, “The fact is, the people who posted this video would stop at nothing to get you to click on this link, so it would increase the website’s page views, and make the advertisers happy.” She combs her doll’s hair and adds: “Just remember, no matter how many videos you watch, or how many lists you read, you’re still gonna feel all alone.” She raises her arms in a familiar grinning shrug. “I guess that’s just the way it is!” 

I asked the site’s editors how they would define clickbait. “Awesome,” said Affonso. “Incredible,” added Berkley. “To me,” Affonso said, more seriously, “clickbait, in the pejorative sense, promises something awesome and exciting and great, but it’s ultimately vacuous and empty and doesn’t fulfill that promise. Clickbait tricks you.”

“There’s not actually that much of it,” added Berkley. “A lot of sites are accused of it, but I think most sites really come close to delivering what they promise. But a few bad eggs are hurting everyone else.”

I noted that by that definition, ClickHole—a site satirizing clickbait—doesn’t actually post that much clickbait. “Thank you,” Affonso replied with a grin. “We don’t want to trick someone into clicking on something that disappoints them. If you click because you’re excited about it, you get either what you expected, or something even funnier.”

Indeed, most ClickHole stories deliver precisely what their headlines promise, often to an absurdly literal degree. In some cases the headline promises something extremely banal, and the content delivers it. In other cases the promise itself is bizarre or outlandish or very, very sad, yet the piece makes good on that promise. Some of the best ClickHole stories represent the headline’s promise as interpreted by a stupid person or a deeply disturbed person or a racist person or a fictional character or, in the case of a bananas Calvin and Hobbes video the site published last June, a straight-up pervert. (“If You Grew Up With ‘Calvin and Hobbes,’ You Need to Watch This Right Now,” the headline read, and the video—which is still floating around the Internet in all its awful splendor—featured the two beloved cartoon characters extravagantly, explicitly fucking, followed by the words, “We love you, Bill Watterson!” The post disappeared quickly, but bolstered the suspicion among readers, me included, that ClickHole was a site that might not actually have any boundaries of taste.)

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Where ClickHole really utilizes the tools of clickbait is in the linguistic grace notes it employs. “It’s rhetorically funny to play with that clickbait language,” Berkley said. In the edit meeting, the writers discussed a headline that felt straight out of my Facebook feed, but with a twist: “For Shame: This Greedy Teacher Didn’t Spend Her Own Money on Art Supplies.” “ ‘For shame’ doesn’t really sound Internetty,” Affonso said. “Maybe ‘SMH’?”

“ ‘Disgusting,’ ” another writer suggested.

ClickHole is fluent in viral jargon: “Fan Prayers Answered: Here’s What the Cast of ‘Sixteen Candles’ Looks Like in a Tent.” “They’re Still Alive?! 7 Celebrities Who You Thought Were Dead, But Escaped Your Lethal Traps.” “We Never Thought There Could Be 6 Photos of Denis Leary … Then We Saw THIS.” (“Yep. That just happened. Incredible,” the post says, after six photos of Denis Leary.) “I like playing with the enthusiasm that the Internet engenders,” Cullen Crawford told me, the way the Internet treats trivial things and world-shaking news as identically strenuously important. “I mean,” he added, “that is a characteristic of an insane person.”

The site is broadening its aim, seeking out other popular forms of viral-friendly content that are ripe for parody. Affonso is interested in exploring the ClickHole take on Humans of New York and other single-voice storytelling posts. Adam Levine recently used the pages-from-history technique epitomized by sites like Letters of Note and Slate’s Vault blog to write “This Is the Speech JFK Would’ve Given if the Cuban Missile Crisis Had Triggered Nuclear War.” Associate editor Jamie Brew is working on a science explainer video series he’s calling “Learn-a-Tech,” inspired by Smarter Every Day’s wildly shareable video about surface tension and poop splash. Just like the media companies it lampoons, the site is experimenting with Facebook native content; it often uses its social-media accounts to launch quixotic shame campaigns. At the edit meeting, writers discussed FiveThirtyEight-style data journalism and Grantland-style oral histories. Since that meeting the site has run several oral histories, including a glorious take on Mad Men that posited Jon Hamm as a cretin who for seven seasons concluded every scene by announcing, “I’m not Don Draper, I’m Dick Whitman! Yowza!” (“John Slattery: When Jon Hamm says the word ‘Yowza!’ his voice gets extremely low-pitched, like a dragon is talking.”)

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When I asked what ClickHole might target next, Berkley immediately replied, “Slate. We’re just gonna attack Slate.” Then we all laughed. But the editors pointed out that while ClickHole has not specifically skewered #slatepitches, the hashtag that mocks this magazine’s penchant for contrarianism, its writers have vigorously satirized the world of argument-based news coverage—the world, in short, of hot takes—many times in its Blogs section. It’s all there: the hysterical overreaction, the speculative pre-condemnation, the comprehensive rebuttal to an argument no one is making. The Blogs section, Berkley told me, pokes fun at the opinion-journalism technique of “people getting a venue who absolutely don’t deserve a venue—even on an infinite platform like the Internet.”

Affonso brought up an absurd opinion post ClickHole had recently published, “Only Some People Are Jewish,” written by Lauren Moser. “These are such empty arguments,” he said. “So many sites run these non-arguments! You have to argue about something, or to stand behind some point, because you just need some content out that day.”

“Yeah,” I said. “That’s a great point about, like, Salon.”

“Sure, Salon,” Affonso replied.

In fact, the editors insist, the goal is rarely to satirize any specific site. It is, instead, to evolve in order to capture the feel of the entire social Web. “As websites shift their strategies, ideally our site should also shift its strategy,” said Affonso.

“We did a lot of quizzes early on,” pointed out Berkley, “because that was kind of the hot thing last summer, but at this point we’re not churning out as many of those. To peg yourself to one specific site is dangerous. The Onion is relevant so long as the overall tradition of journalism is relevant. It’s the same for us—as long as the Internet is relevant, so too is ClickHole.”

“Right,” said Affonso.

“The Internet is so full of awfulness that deserves a takedown,” said Berkley. “So that’s really exciting for us.”

In the end, said Cullen Crawford, ClickHole is about something bigger than the social Web. It’s about a certain way of looking at the world, a lens that will appear familiar even to those readers who don’t frequent ClickHole. Crawford told me, “The thesis of the site is: The world is terrifying garbage.”

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Wait a minute, I thought, talking to Crawford in the kitchen of the Onion offices, where we sat between a packed-full company refrigerator and a gilded portrait of a jumpsuited Joe Biden atop a motorcycle. That kind of flippant nihilism—the sense that a person exists enthusiastically in a world in which LOL NOTHING MATTERS—sounded awfully familiar. You can spot it in many media-savvy outlets online: in the influential newsletter Today in Tabs, in much of Gawker, in the ominous-yet-clever GIFs that illustrate the thoughtful-yet-hopeless media criticism of the Awl’s John Herrman. It even populates some odd neighborhoods of BuzzFeed, a site otherwise relentlessly positive by design—especially the writing of Daniel Kibblesmith, who came to BuzzFeed six months back from … ClickHole, where he was an editor. Until he was hired in May as a writer for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, he made a cottage industry of very funny posts that seem as though they could just as easily have run at his former home, among them the recent “6 Theories That Will Transform the Way You See Popular Movies” (“Theory #2: The Terminators in Terminator 2 Are Actually From the Future”).

The gleeful Kibblesmith-style nonsense and the blithe Herrman-style despair are twinned, related expressions of the desperation felt by much of the media world. The rise of social networks and their ability to determine the fortunes of media companies by delivering millions of readers—or not—with the flick of an algorithm feels existentially destabilizing. These market forces threatening our careers are ever more apparent but no less inexorable, and we all need the uniques, and so—to paraphrase a 2011 observation by an ex-Facebook analyst about Silicon Valley—the best journalistic minds of my generation are battling each other for Facebook’s attention. The fact that none of us knows how this will turn out leads to a kind of whistling-to-the-gallows attitude.

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ClickHole employs this same flippant-nihilism mode, but in a manner I find not depressing but invigorating. Perversely so, perhaps. It’s a no-holds-barred, extremely mean, rules-free satire of what I do every day—publishing pieces upon which I hope people will click—that often succeeds at that exact task better than I do. Sure, ClickHole plays at playing the traffic game, espousing a comic ethos of shameless pandering. But ClickHole also frequently publishes Web content that goes viral because it is extremely funny and great.

I left ClickHole’s offices thinking once more about their tongue-in-cheek motto: “All web content deserves to go viral.” I laugh at this bit but, like everyone I know who works in online media, I also believe it to be true. Maybe not all Web content, but my Web content certainly deserves to go viral. I want people to read the things I write and edit, and I get pissed when no one does. It’s ClickHole’s cheerful exhumation of that buried desire, the thirst I feel that is partly my natural writerly exhibitionism but mostly attributable to my magazine’s need to garner ever greater numbers of eyeballs in order to survive, that makes reading ClickHole such an intense experience for me and for other people inside media.

The stories Slate publishes, I have always believed, would never be published in the same way in another magazine. Sometimes this belief is proved wrong, as when a reporter from Capital New York compiled a list of responses to Trevor Noah’s appointment as new host of the Daily Show on which our blogpost looked pretty much the same as everyone else’s blogposts. ClickHole’s Adam Levine referenced the Trevor Noah news wave during our interview, in explaining a particular frustration he feels about the Internet and wants to exorcise through his work on the site: “The Internet can feel really predictable,” he said. “Almost scripted.” ClickHole takes that script, highlights the craziest parts, and then sets it on fire.

Reading that list of Trevor Noah takes bums me out, not because I thought ours was bad—indeed, ours thoroughly addressed a question a lot of our readers really wanted to know the answer to—but because I am reminded that sometimes exigencies of the market force us to be basically the same as everyone else. The genius of ClickHole is that the site doesn’t seem the same as anyone else, even as it is designed to remind you of everyone else.

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Indeed, a site launched as a parody of BuzzFeed now has a more complicated and fascinating relationship to the social Web than BuzzFeed does. Somehow the exact market forces that make me and much of the rest of media rend our garments and bite our nails have created in the wilds of Chicago the exact thing we mourn, or at least anticipate mourning: perfectly packaged, finely tuned editorial brilliance. Reading ClickHole no longer feels like reading a parody of BuzzFeed, or Slate, or Upworthy, or ViralNova. It doesn’t feel like a parody at all. Reading one ClickHole piece feels like reading your Facebook feed for an hour. ClickHole is the ultrapure product of a refinery at the end of that Keystone pipeline of crap shared by your uncle, by your pushy co-worker, by that guy you went to high school with. To read ClickHole is to read the institutional voice of the Internet. No one is responsible for the place we all live now. It just appeared. We are all, every one of us, only here to make sure it goes viral.