Do you remember the last time you cried? I do: it was Friday afternoon. Before that, it was Thursday afternoon. Before that, Wednesday afternoon. In fact, pretty much every working day, just before I finish, I openly weep at my desk. I don't hate my job; nor do I love it so much that the thought of leaving the office brings me to tears. It's just that this is the time of day, as everything winds down, that I read ClickHole until I start weeping with laughter.
ClickHole is an offshoot of satirical behemoth The Onion. Launched in June of 2014, a few months after The Onion ceased its print-run and moved entirely online, the site was founded as "a response to click-bait content" – a parody of the websites that clog up your timeline with inane listicles about "The 48 Things You'll Only Get If You Grew Up in Portsmouth".
Upon launching, ClickHole continued a tradition established by its parent company: fooling people into believing its stories were real. Perhaps you discovered the site when your outraged aunt commented on a Facebook photo of KKK members that encouraged viewers to "Tag your friends and share!" Or maybe when that guy from college whose profile picture is a photo of a katana posted a link to "11 Signs You're Dating Your Soulmate" with the caption "Ppl = shit." Just last week, in fact, musician St Vincent fell for a fake quote the site had attributed to her.
Today, the basic principle behind ClickHole is the same as when it first launched: to lampoon click-bait websites. But there's more to it than that; the writers aren't just taking Buzzfeed quizzes or Upworthy headlines and making them more absurd. Instead, they've harnessed the language used by these sites and created their own kind of satirical syntax.
"We've taken the emotional voice of the internet and used that as a jumping-off point to create our own worlds or weird scenarios," explains ClickHole editor Matt Powers. "Like, 'This is the best thing!', 'This just won the internet!' or, 'Get the tissues ready – this will break your heart!' It's always in this heightened emotional state, using broad strokes with this hyperbolic language. We use that to create our own world."
I'm sure you're familiar with what Matt's referring to. With websites dependent on advertising, and ad spend dependent on click-through rates and unique viewer numbers, certain headline writers will do whatever they can to attract those valuable clicks. It's why you now see stories titled "This Hollywood star just had a HORRIFIC boating accident... the results will SHOCK you!", or, "This kindLAD helped a grandma cross the street – you'll never guess what happened next!"
"Now we just make jokes in this really fun voice," says ClickHole managing editor Anthony Easton. "It's a comment on how people use the internet to always be hyper-emotional about everything. It's using the absurdity of the internet to comment on how absurd [the internet] is, and to do that we need to go one step beyond and make it even more weird, like this abstract, insane world."
Speaking to the staff at ClickHole, you get the impression they view their website as not just a website, but as almost a character in itself, with its own voice and view of the world. An editorial identity as bold as that is a solid starting block for any writer thinking up ideas, but I'm still curious as to how the site's team of eight full-time writers, two editors and a head writer manage to keep both the quantity and quality of their posts so consistent.
Anthony explains: "Every Monday we have a writers' meeting that lasts roughly four-and-a-half hours. We go through all the headlines the writers have thought up in this big long list, discussing which ones we like."
This list can be anything from 850 to 1,000 headlines long, before it's whittled down to the 25 or so that end up on the site each week. "To have the best ideas we have to have a lot of ideas – but we're still very picky with what gets published," says Anthony. "The best writers are only successful 25 percent of the time. To hit that much, you have to miss a lot."
Every post is pitched from the headline, and none of the authors' names are included on the master list – a pitching practice adopted from The Onion, and one that presumably gives staff a little more creative confidence, the anonymity allowing them to try out ideas they might not have otherwise. Mind you, bashfulness in the writers' room apparently isn't too much of an issue. "The fact that you know most of these ideas will never see the light of day gives you a certain freedom to try stuff out that is riskier than what you'd do with your own voice," says head writer Jamie Brews.
I ask Jamie what he and his team do to ensure the site stays fresh, because while one set-up or article concept might get a great response the first couple of times around, do too much of the same thing and your viewers are going to get bored.
"ClickHole writers go through certain phases of enjoying certain jokes about a particular subject, and writing loads of jokes about these subjects," he says. "But there's an impulse that when we've done too many jokes on a particular subject, or [in a particular] style, the writers' room starts to shoot ideas like that down."
He adds: "It's a dead-end street to think, 'What will the internet readers find funny?' That's a cynical way to go about it. We're more selfish, but also more practical: we just do what makes us laugh."
What makes the ClickHole team laugh clearly makes others laugh, too. This site's been going just shy of two years, but it's already picked up over 650,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter combined. Social media is important to Jamie and the rest of the team; besides the fact they "pretty much rely" on it for traffic, according to Anthony, this is the arena in which so much click-bait language originates.
"Social media is really big for us in terms of building the voice and building the world that ClickHole exists in," says Anthony. "That's what's really important to us: the attention to detail."
With this emphasis on maintaining an authentic voice, I wonder if branded posts or advertorials are a concern – whether or not the writers worry about having to tone down content to suit the vanilla tastes of advertisers.
"We know that advertising is a part of the game, but we never use our headline meetings to pitch sponsored content," says Matt. "Advertisers want to work with us in fun and creative ways, and I think that's a sign of our success. I think the main thing is we keep the same voice, and our readers are always aware which pieces are sponsored and never feel tricked."
Anthony adds: "Most of the time, our sponsored stuff is just a ClickHole article with a logo on it."
He's not lying: scroll through the past month's posts and, going by the headline and content, you'd be hard pressed to identify what was sponsored if it wasn't for the logo slapped up in the top left corner of the page. This is an issue every media company has to contend with – without advertisers, you can't pay your staff, but bow too low to the whims of your sponsors and you'll start to lose both readers and anything resembling editorial integrity. So, as Matt points out, it's testament to ClickHole's output that brands are gagging to work with them on their terms, rather than the other way around.
Speaking to ClickHole's staff, you can tell they care deeply about their site. And that's a good thing, because as the internet becomes more and more idiotic, we need people who take absurdity seriously to make sense of it all.
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