This all started with Buzzfeed, whose evil genius got interviewed by the Huffington Post:
Do you drink gin and tonic? Like to eat rice and beans? Can’t live without Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie”?
Then BuzzFeed knows you definitely should be living in Rio de Janeiro.
If you’re on Facebook, it’s been hard to miss the rise of BuzzFeed’s enigmatic personality quizzes. Its most popular quiz “What City Should You Actually Live In?” — 20 million views — spread furiously through the social network. Everyone eagerly answered seemingly random questions like “What could you eat forever?” and “What’s your jam?” and got an answer to a fairly weighty question that was perfect for sharing. (Look guys, I should live in Paris!)
The editorial effort behind the quizzes has been spearheaded by Summer Anne Burton. She was originally hired to work at BuzzFeed two years ago while freelancing and waitressing in Austin, Texas. Now, as managing editorial director based out of the website’s growing New York office, Burton, 31, oversees the BuzzFeed’s viral lists, which have driven the site’s growth to a record 130 million visitors in November 2013.
Burton spoke with The Huffington Post about how the quizzes get made, why they’re so crazy viral and how they have their roots in women’s magazines. The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.
So when did the quizzes start taking off? And why?
We had been making quizzes slowly, but nothing crazy. Then, around the end of last year, I was looking at some stats and what posts had done really well. Our most shared post was this quiz called “Which ‘Grease’ Pink Lady Are You?” that Louis Peitzman in L.A. did. It had not been a big hit when it was first published, but it had this super long tail.
I had noticed a couple other things like that — posts that were quiz-related or quizzes that had a second life. So I mentioned the “Grease” quiz a couple times in meetings with my team. They all are addicted to getting a lot of reactions and sharing, so it was inspiring for them to hear that that could do so well. They started making a lot more quizzes.
We have this staff writer Jen Lewis, who’s also an illustrator and who does a lot of design work in Photoshop. She started making personality quizzes that have basically the look you see now, where instead of it being a bunch of text, there are these little square questions that have text on them and look pretty. She started making quizzes that look like that.
Screenshot from “What’s The Name Of Your Soulmate?” by Jen Lewis.Then in January, our travel editor Ashley Perez made “What City Should You Actually Live In?” and it immediately became one of our most viral posts of all time.
I’ve definitely seen that post.
That one was definitely a big tipping point. We made templates for the design elements so that people who aren’t super familiar with Photoshop could make their own version of it and wrote out some some loose guidelines for what makes a quiz good.
Can you walk me through how a BuzzFeed quiz is built?
So when you make a personality quiz, you have a tab for questions and a tab for results. One of the first things I tell people when I’m explaining how to build a quiz is that they should always write the results first. You might have a quiz like “Which ‘Saved By The Bell’ Character Are You?” So you have the six main characters, and you write the result title, give them a photo and write some text about each of them based on their characters before you did anything else. We have some ideas about how long they should be and what’s good for sharing.
Once you’ve put in the results, you can tab over to questions. Underneath each question there’s an unlimited number of answers that you can add. With each answer, you assign a personality. That’s why we do the results first. It’s a lot easier to write the answers if you know what personalities you’re assigning. So in my example, you’d add answers and assign six different results.
The backend is actually just a hidden version of a classic Cosmo quiz. You have six buckets, and whichever answer you have the most in the bucket, that’s the result that you get.
Some of these quizzes seem to make sense. For “Which ‘Parks and Recreations’ Character Are You?” I can answer the questions in a way I’d expect Leslie Knope or Tom Haverford to, and I’d get them as a result. But for other quizzes, like “Which Arbitrary Thing Are You?”, there doesn’t seem to be any relationship between the answers you give and the results you get. So is there any internal logic to how these quizzes are built?
I think our most successful quizzes are mostly built so that the results feel personal and that you can relate to them. The answers genuinely correspond to the results. We’ve tried a lot of other experiments, which is just the nature of the way we function at BuzzFeed. “Which Arbitrary Thing Are You?” is kind of a joke about BuzzFeed quizzes. That’s something we encourage and think is fun. People thought it was really funny and liked it, but it’s more humorous than most of our personality quizzes, which I don’t think are humor so much as they are a way for people to identify and relate to others.
There was a Slate article about BuzzFeed quizzes that characterizes them as having “seemingly random results [that] could be a deliciously nihilistic commentary on the human condition.” So do you think that some of the editors and writers at BuzzFeed have approached them like that?
I think the quizzes that most people are sharing and talking about aren’t very random. I think it comes from a genuine place.
It seems that these quizzes are designed to reveal some underlying personality traits, like a Myers-Briggs test. Do you think readers have the expectation that they’re going to get some sort of scientific result from these quizzes?
I don’t think so. The thing that I compare it to is astrology. It’s not scientific, but if you have a good attitude, that doesn’t keep it from being fun. When you get the results, you can relate it to yourself. Sometimes, that relationship is, “ Oh my gosh, I’m not a Zack Morris, I’m a Kelly Kapowski.” That’s a lot of the sharing that we see. It’s fun, it’s a game. I don’t think that when people answer “Where Should Your Next Vacation Be?” they are super invested in thinking that’s going to tell them something really deep about themselves.
One of the cardinal rules of life is that anything worthwhile will be copied — sometimes improved, sometimes not. Several other quiz websites have sprung up like dandelions on a lawn. According to WhichCharacterAreYouQuiz.com, I am Confucius …
A wise and thoughtful person, always seeking to improve other people’s knowledge. You have learned lots from life, including many difficult personal situations. Loyalty is your main attribute, and you can be depended on if a task is given to you.
… Abraham Lincoln …
You are disarmingly unpretentious, a plain-spoken person genuinely interested in people and their problems. A good listener you are at your best in relaxed conversation with small groups. Your ready wit, down-home logic, and seemingly endless store of anecdotes delighting those present. For all your good humor, however, you have a dark side and have wrestled with bouts of mental depression.
… St. Andrew (except for the golf part) …
A perceptive person, you know when you meet someone interesting and immediately want to introduce them to your friends and family! Sadly, sometimes their fame overshadows you and you are forgotten about. However, you are fiercely loyal to your friends. You love to travel and always leave your mark wherever you go – everyone wants it remembered that you visited them. Your favorite time of year is winter and your favorite sport is probably golf.
… writer Gregory Maguire …
You are one of the rare people who don’t judge a book by its cover. You are able to look at a person and see their heart. You disagree with stereotyping and you do everything in your power to stop it from happening, people often to look to you for advice because you see the bigger picture.
… Ringo Starr …
You are Ringo Starr, drumming is your middle name. You can sometimes be overlooked but you are the peacemaker in your group and your friends would be lost without you and your steady yet jokey manner.
… Pulp Fiction’s Marsellus Wallace …
You are the man. The boss. Everyone is scared of you and no one that has half a brain will defy you. If you’ve got someone making trouble for you, you don’t mess around and call in your henchmen to sort it out immediately. You don’t give out second chances to anyone, unless your pride is at stake.
… the Dr. Who played by David Tennant …
You are stylish, witty and charming. It’s no wonder that women throughout the galaxy are clamoring after you! You truly enjoy being with people, and are particularly drawn to those who are curious and creative. You are talkative and have a positive nature, but your high energy levels can become exasperating for those around you.
… Daniel Craig as James Bond …
Lacking the stereotypical tall dark and handsome looks that have made those who have walked the path you are on successful, you use your own unique, dashingly handsome looks in your own way. You are known for causing controversy. Despite the constant and overwhelming criticism of your abilities to get the job done, you have been able to silence your critics way beyond their expectations time and time again. You have thrown out all stereotypical characteristics which many believe would not play in your favor. They were wrong!
… and Aaron Rodgers:
You are cold and calculated on the field, but the joker in the pack off it. Performing with the proverbial chip on your shoulder, you’ve proven to those who rejected you that it was the biggest mistake they ever made.
(Anyone who has ever seen me attempt to throw a football — indeed, throw anything — should be amused at the last one. A coworker and friend of mine once noted that, at the time, I had the build of a quarterback. But, I replied, I have the arm of a kicker.)
Burton mentioned astrology. The Seriously for Real website promises “AN ACCURATE HOROSCOPE FOR THE WHOLE YEAR 2014! (Well Maybe Not So Much),” which in my case says:
GEMINI – The Twin (May 21 to June 20) Nice. Love is one of a kind. Great listeners. Very good at confusing people. Lover not a fighter, but will still knock you out. Geminis will not take any crap from anyone. Geminis like to tell people what they should do and get offended easily. They are great at losing things and are forgetful. Geminis can be very sarcastic and childish at times and are very nosy. Trustworthy. Always happy. VERY Loud. Talkative. Outgoing. VERY FORGIVING. Loves to make out. Has a beautiful smile. Generous. Strong. THE MOST IRRESISTIBLE. 9 years of bad luck if you do not share this post.