In a world plagued by both fake news and “FAKE NEWS,” fact-checking has become something like a civic duty for nerds on the internet. For some, this is the culmination of a lifetime spent being an insufferable know-it-all at parties. For me, it’s just a chance to finally call Buzzfeed on its bullshit.
In January, I took on a second job as the unofficial ombudsman of Buzzfeed Quizzes. This was a strictly unpaid, unsolicited position. My sole duty has been sending complaint emails to Buzzfeed’s director of quizzes—an extremely patient and understanding man named Matthew—usually late at night.
While Matthew’s replies are always professional, there’s a fundamentally antagonistic tension to our relationship. His job is to get the quizzes out and mine is to highlight their failures. To make this process as painless as possible, I developed a few rules to keep my criticism constructive—much in the same way, I hope, that Buzzfeed has learned to never fuck with quiz takers.
Today, I share that wisdom with you.
Until last year, Buzzfeed’s quizzes were something I enjoyed only when I stumbled across them, like popsicles or Craisins. But after taking a high-stress journalism job in New York, this occasional part of my online diet became a regular late-night snack, a much-needed refuge from the news I spent 10 hours a day pouring into my eyes, Ludovico-style.
Sadly, something was amiss. I started noticing small (but no more forgivable) errors in the quizzes. So, seeing wrongs to be righted and having nothing better to do with my evenings, my emails began.
Above is my first message to Matthew, concerning a quiz titled “Only People Raised By TV Will Get 10/13 On This Quiz.” The takeaway here, I think, is the importance of being specific. An email titled, say, “EAT MY ASS,” is difficult to take action on (not to mention pretty rude to send).
My colleagues at Gizmodo frequently receive complaints simply stating “YOU’RE ARTICLE SUCKS” or “YOU SHOULD BE IN AN INSTITUTION.” But which article? And what kind of institution? If you don’t state your criticism clearly, there’s no way for the recipient to know.
If you follow my first lesson, you might be surprised to find your complaint leads to actual results. In the case of “Only People Raised By TV Will Get 10/13 On This Quiz,” the flawed question was corrected almost immediately. At this point, a crucial second step comes into play.
If you really want to promote positive change, you should offer a carrot as well as a stick. A short thanks like the one seen above is probably sufficient, as digital media workers are generally praise-starved wrecks who spend most workdays worrying about job-erasing “content pivots.”
Of course, the feedback they really want to hear is something like, “Wow, great job, I’ll never email you again!” For reasons explained below, this is not a promise you should make.
Just days after sending my first email, I noticed another (arguably more egregious) error. A quiz titled “You’re Officially An Adult If You Own 7/32 Of These Kitchen Items” told me I was “not an adult” after checking off 13 items. So, in a state of torment and confusion, I reached out to Matthew again.
And, once again, my good faith approach got results.
Shortly afterward, it was determined that the seeming contradiction was the result of a typo in the quiz title—a flaw that was quickly corrected.
It’s hard to say how many quiz takers were rescued from the jaws of doubt by my vigilance, but I think a fair estimate is thousands, if not millions. Does that make me Batman? Yes, I think, it basically does.
For weeks after the kitchen items “incident,” I had no issues with Buzzfeed’s quizzes. My scrutiny was clearly paying off. Then, on Feb. 24, the website posted a quiz titled “Only A True Fruit Lover Has Eaten 40/68 Of These Fruits,” one of the best I have ever taken.
It was Carrot Time.
Matthew, presumably rendered speechless by the sentiment of my words, did not respond. This is the power of repeatedly emailing someone you’ve never met.
In the months that followed, I found myself relying less and less on the palliative effects of Buzzfeed quizzes. I’d still take them here and there, sure, but I developed other techniques for reducing stress in my life, such as only looking at Twitter when absolutely necessary.
In time, I realized I needed to hang up my red pen and let the next generation of truth seekers find their glory.
I’d like to say that my job is done, but the work of a Buzzfeed quiz fact-checker never really is. In recent weeks, I’ve noticed small mistakes, like a glass of an opaque, milky liquid labeled as “water” and an adult wallaby presented as a “baby kangaroo.” I didn’t email Buzzfeed with these complaints, but maybe you will. Just be sure you’re polite, specific, and (most importantly of all) technically correct.
And if you find your message answered by a remarkably tolerant quiz director, tell him Hudson says hi.