Tech by VICE

Selling the Last Funny Content Farm

The Onion provides commentary on the mess that the internet has become, while also being a highly monetizable part of the mess.

Jan 22 2016, 9:45pm

Sometimes when I browse the internet, I find myself wondering where I can go for a laugh. Sure, every day I can silently chuckle at the general state of the internet, but it's hard to find a media brand who you can legitimately say specializes in perpetually generating humorous content. I can't tell if my own specific desire for 'a lil something that makes me laugh' means that I have sought a niche too far, or that niche humor on the internet no longer exists because it isn't scalable.

Earlier this week, Spanish media conglomerate Univision bought a controlling stake in The Onion, which includes multiple properties like Clickhole and AV Club. Univision purchased 40% of the company with the right to buy it out. Of course, the sale comes with the usual statements of positivity from the publisher, like the opportunity to grow, create new media, reach new audiences, strengthen ad sales and aw shucks, look at how far we've come from being a lil ol' media startup in 1998.

In the current state of media, you have to acknowledge that establishing a humorous media brand is valuable, and nearly impossible. Forget about the idea that white Millennials love The Onion's site/brand. It's rare to think about a website that is just known for 'being funny' now. Most media companies that reach Millennials started in a niche like music, technology, or fashion, but have eventually hedged their coverage into EVERYTHING. These big box content farms spread their tentacles as far as possible to cast the widest net. They don't specialize in anything in particular, but instead 'stay agile' in order to meet the needs of the hyper-contemporary content consumer.

Univision's goal is to reach English-speaking Millennials and diversify their media portfolio. Once again, we've watched one of the legacy internet media brands with origins in web 1.0 'go the way of the Pitchfork,' who recently sold to Conde Nast. The era of crafting an independent voice with the rising demographic of Millennials is over. A media company won't be built or discovered until the mainstream media consolidation of internet is over in a year or two. Everything happens so fast on the internet that scaling a new media voice in a way that hasn't been done before will require the toppling of one or more social networks in order to break the automated consumption cycles of content consuming Millennials.

Generalist content has a marginal chance, but humor on the internet now only exists to be misinterpreted. Armies of tolerance are looking to pick apart anything vaguely controversial. All humor is unrelatable, low-brow, and socially unaware of the parties who the humor is exploiting or harming. Internet humor essentially chops your audience by at least 50%. It's probably not worth it to try to be funny, or provide commentary on the internet in a way that isn't a mildly-angled recap of a trending topic.

Can intelligent satire even exist on the internet any more?
Where do you turn for 'niche humor' on the internet?
Can a media brand even exist in the name of satire without seeming 'troll-like' or 'clickbaity'?
With the media pandering to universal audiences, will 'niche' humor like left-leaning societal satire even scale to Onion heights ever again?

The Onion actually did a great job of adapting to every phase of the internet. After establishing their brand, the ceiling for their original content was only so high. They forayed into a television show on IFC [via hyper-premium content]. The AV Club came along at a time when cultural/entertainment content farms were 'all the rage.' It turned out to be a more sustainable model than the now defunct Grantland, or even Pitchfork's foray into film, The Dissolve. In the latest post-everything internet, they launched Clickhole, which provided commentary on the mess that the internet had become, while also being a highly monetizable part of the mess.

For a brand that is known for humor, they created an ecosystem where all of their brands were in an equilibrium that never made one seem like it 'went too far.'

There are tons of humorists on the internet. Some exist on Youtube as vloggers. There are Twitter accounts that are supposed to embody 'the language of the internet.' Instagram accounts publish memes for hyper-young, non-affluent, mildly-educated audiences. Facebook pages for all types of brands are all sharing humorous memes. But will an Onion even come around again? It seems impossible for a media brand on any platform to use taste and restraint to build a strong editorial brand that appropriately deploys satire in a way that the backlash-hungry internet doesn't see as exploitative.

Context, medium, and timeliness all contribute to 'what makes something funny' on or off the internet. However, the internet's current wasteland of content somehow makes humor even more impossible as every one exists asynchronously on a different plane. There are infinite niches for all ages, social networks, political outlooks, cultural literacies, and social awareness planes. There are more voices to hear and forget. It seems like none of these humorists in the form of creators or social media accounts can siphon themselves into a real 'media brand' based on a monetizable website. They have the reach, but they don't have the roots in a different time.

The Onion managed to defy all big box content farm logic, and supply fictional content in the name of satire/parody. Because of it's legacy brand and former print presence, it can sell advertisers better than the clickbait fake news sites of recent times. Univision's backing will only make that easier. No one is quite sure what 'the internet' will even look like in even two years (besides a heavy emphasis on video), but independent media voices that existed even before the web 2.0 media wars are being acquired for the sake of survival.

As 2016, the year of the mainstream media and internet media company consolidation moves forward, The Onion made the decision to stay alive into the next phase. "Selling out" in internet media doesn't really mean you are giving up, it probably means that the people behind an online publication want it to exist with the means to pivot where necessary into an uncertain future.

The Onion is a true commodity in today's content farm drought/mutated harvest of 'premium' content.

Life on the Content Farm is a weekly column about internet media written by the last relevant blogger.