MEDANSKY: A time for quizzing

Little Fables
annelisa buzzfeed opinion feb 7 copy
Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

Forget Nyan Cat, “Gangnam Style” and Honey Boo Boo Child; the latest sensation to enrapture the Internet is now the BuzzFeed quiz. At Yale the phenomenon seemed to start a few weeks back, when students began sharing one post — “Which College Should You Actually Go To?” — on Facebook. The absurdist personality quiz left some gleefully updating their statuses and others reflecting on anxieties that probably should have died senior year of high school. Either way, it was fun. And the folks doing BuzzFeed’s analytics must have thought so too, because soon they started publishing a lot more quizzes.

Annelisa Leinbach_Illustrations Editor_Marissa Medansky_1011Now, the ubiquity of these things is comical. They range from the cute (“Which Roald Dahl Character Are You?”) to the absurdist (“What Underdog Nation Should You Root for in the Winter Olympics?”) to the current (“Which Pop Diva Are You?”). New ones get posted every day, and dedicated procrastinators will tackle all of them regardless of any general applicability to their lives. I’ll probably never live in London, but still spent two minutes learning where in the city I “should actually live.” I found myself taking “How Much Would Ron Swanson Hate You?” despite having only seen three or four episodes of “Parks and Recreation.”

The nice thing about BuzzFeed quizzes, though, is that this doesn’t really matter at all: The tests are knowingly whimsical. Sure, Slate parodied the media company’s viral posts with “Which BuzzFeed Quiz Are You?” on Jan. 28, but even the quiz-industrial complex itself is not above self-parody, as evidenced by this week’s “Which Arbitrary Thing Are You?” The ridiculousness is most certainly is self-aware. In the making and taking of these quizzes, no one on either end of the transaction really thinks that preferences as petty as your favorite color could ever divine matters as serious as the character in “Mean Girls” most similar to you. Stronger forces are needed for that (and that’s Nate Silver’s territory, anyhow).

Nevertheless, these quizzes have drawn a considerable amount of media attention, and multiple writers have attempted to ascertain what their popularity might say about our culture as of late. Again at Slate, Emma Roller theorizes that the BuzzFeed quizzes delight us because they allow us to instantly affirm the traits we value about ourselves in a communal way. “By sharing your quiz results on Facebook,” she writes, “you are saying: Look! Like a Ravenclaw, I am intelligent yet kind. Like Daenerys Targaryen, I am not to be trifled with.”

Roller links to Jordan Shapiro of Forbes, who’s got another theory about why personality tests go viral that will, his headline warns, “blow my mind.” “Essentially, entertainment quizzes are diluted novelty versions of the psychological personality tests that gained popularity in the 1920s,” explains Shapiro. Mind blown.

Shapiro thinks that the popularity of the personality test indicates a Freudian process known as displacement. In this case, what we’re displacing is our anxiety about government surveillance and how we’re shoving it aside is quizzes. “Rather than focusing on the algorithmic targeting and surveillance that has become so ordinary in our everyday lives,” he writes, “we distract ourselves by focusing on meaningless algorithmic categorization.”

I disagree with this — both this particular Freudian interpretation and this broad phenomenon of searching for a more sophisticated synonym for “fun.” Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a meaningless algorithmic categorization is just a meaningless algorithmic categorization. Sometimes that algorithmic categorization doesn’t foretell anything about the nature of journalism or the nature of society at large. If only that were the case here.

Fortunately, there’s a happy medium between the totally unexamined life and a life so examined that suddenly these silly BuzzFeed quizzes become the harbinger of eschatological terror. I think that medium reveals this: That sometimes it is nice that things are strange or of no particular significance at all, and BuzzFeed quizzes are both, remarkably so. But moreover and more importantly these quizzes are healthy, in a weird sort of way.

Spring semester is, in a sense, an endless slog of judgment. It can feel like one constant evaluation: an endless calendar of midterms and interviews, bookended by seminar applications and then acceptance results from internships or jobs. Perhaps, then, there is something nice, or even something subversive, about this strange reclamation of quizzing. And it’s natural that quizzes without right answers are the most fun — especially ones about Beyoncé.

Marissa Medansky is a junior in Morse College and a former opinion editor for the News. Her columns run on  alternate Fridays. Contact her at  marissa.medansky@yale.edu .

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