New York: For a compulsive online quiz-taker like Chrissy Noh, the temptation was too great to resist: “Which sandwich are you?”
After answering a series of unscientific, seemingly unrelated questions, which included selecting her favourite doughnut from a line-up of frosted pastries, she had her answer (grilled cheese, for the record). And she’s not the only one who’s comparing herself to sandwiches lately. Go on, admit it: Chances are, you’ve been doing it, too.
A recent explosion of silly online personality quizzes, most of them created by the young social media mavens at Buzzfeed.com, has everybody talking about which state they really ought to be living in and which Harry Potter character they really are. Buzzfeed says the quizzes are smashing traffic records and generating more Facebook comment threads than any viral posts in the site’s history.
Experts say the phenomenon isn’t surprising given the age-old fascination with that central question — “Who AM I?” - and a desire to compare ourselves with others in a social media-obsessed society.
On a recent snowy day, the 37-year-old Noh, who lives in New York City, admitted that she and several friends spent the afternoon taking quizzes and texting each other screen shots of the results. “It turned into an all-day group text message fest, where it was just picture after picture of, oh, what rapper are you?” she says, laughing. “What career should you actually have? Which sandwich are you? Which member of One Direction should you marry?”
Personality quizzes have been around for decades, gracing the covers of women’s and teen magazines with questions designed to lure us in. Nor are they new to the Internet, where online quizzes can be found aplenty on sites like Zimbio.com, among others. But the recent wave of quiz popularity can be traced directly to Buzzfeed’s New York City headquarters, where a team of about 100 content creators have been producing one to five quizzes every single day for the past two months.
The most popular quiz — “Which State Do You Actually Belong In?” - has generated about 41 million page views.
“For our most viral quizzes, the results have to be meaningful in some way,” says Summer Burton, BuzzFeed’s managing editorial director. “It’s not that they are scientific. It’s just that what they say means something to people as far as their own identity.”
A quiz for everyone
A scroll through the “QUIZZES” page on Buzzfeed.com reveals a bewildering assortment, many infused with pop culture references. Which celebrity cat are you? Which pop diva? Which “Girls” character? What career should you actually have? Which generation do you actually belong in? What kind of dog would you be?
The intense push to pump out as many quizzes as possible started a couple of months ago after Buzzfeed editors realised that a quiz called “Which ‘Grease’ Pink Lady are you?” ranked among the most-trafficked posts of 2013. Then, in mid-January, a quiz called “Which city should you actually live in?” went viral, and the whole venture just took off like wildfire, Burton says.
The ability to create a quiz was encoded into Buzzfeed’s in-house content management system a little more than a year ago. Essentially any staff member has the autonomy to create one. There are no specific rules regarding quiz-making, but each one follows the same age-old general format: You start with the results and work backward based on general personality traits that go with each answer.
“If you take a ‘Parks and Rec’ quiz and you get Leslie Knope, then you’re very enthusiastic,” Burton says. “It’s almost like you pick three or four adjectives, and then those kind of go into figuring out what the answers for each question are going to be. And assigning them to a result.”
Staff members generate the quiz ideas themselves and create the entire thing on their own, though they do receive an edit and feedback before the quizzes are published. “We hire really creative people and kind of tell them to run wild,” Burton says.
The trick to creating an addictive personality quiz is similar to the art of writing a good horoscope. It has to be broad and all-encompassing yet make people believe the answer applies to them personally. We know there’s little substance to them, and yet we can’t seem to stop taking them.
What makes these online quizzes so alluring is that they can be instantaneously shared with hundreds of friends on Facebook for instant feedback, says Denise Friedman, who teaches psychology at Roanoke College in Salem, Va.
“In our age, we’re constantly reflecting on who we are, and technology has really changed the way we interact,” Friedman says. “I think we are constantly engaging in social comparison and thinking about where we stand.”
‘A way to kill time’
John Egan, 50, who lives in Austin, Texas, says he gets sucked into the quizzes partly because he’s curious about himself — and because he wonders how his answers will stack up against his Facebook friends’. But the quizzes have little staying power in his brain.
“There was one recently about what state you should be living in. Honestly, I don’t remember what state I got,” he says. “Which says something about these quizzes. That it’s kind of this momentary thrill, if you will, and then you move on. And it’s like a shiny object: ‘Oh — there’s another quiz!’”
The quizzes are overwhelmingly upbeat and lighthearted in nature, a calculated decision by the people engineering them. After all, they’re designed to be an affirmation of how you see yourself, not an assessment of who you really are.
“Quizzes are an investment of someone’s time,” Burton says. “So it feels like it would almost be mean for someone to go through the process of taking the quiz and have it say, ‘You’re really cynical and negative and nobody likes being around you.’ The ideal is that the qualities are specific enough that it feels personal, but they’re also a compliment.”
And you can take them over and over until you get the answer that validates your own assumptions about yourself. Noh says she may have (ahem) taken the “Which rapper are you?” quiz quite a few times until she was satisfied with the result.
“I kept getting Eminem, which I was unhappy about,” she says. “I was like, ‘I really want Kanye, so I’m gonna answer these questions until I get Kanye West.’”
But will people eventually burn out on these things? Is there such a thing as one Beyoncé quiz too many?
“They don’t alienate anyone. They’re a way to kill time. They’re fun,” says Laura Portwood-Stacer, who teaches media culture and communication at New York University. “Once the novelty of the interface and the results wear off, the trend might dip a bit. But I do think this kind of impulse won’t necessarily go away. It might just take a different form.”
Ultimately, the quizzes offer a superficial way to connect with distant friends and allow people to share personal information without compromising their own privacy, says Gwendolyn Seidman, an assistant professor of psychology at Albright College in Reading, Pa. In other words, taking a Buzzfeed quiz is like driving through a fast-food drive-thru on the Internet.
“Those questions are easier to answer than a real personality test,” Seidman says. “It’s very easy to say, ‘This is the candy that I like, this is the movie that I like.’ You can turn it into some information about yourself — without actually doing the hard work of really thinking hard about yourself.”