I could go on. Buzzfeed has thousands of posts centered around facts. Facts that blow minds. Happy facts! Facts that make you feel old. Adorable facts. Even facts that will teach me a damn thing for once in my life.
And of course, there Twitter accounts that also post facts. Or “facts,” as it were, like @UberFacts.
My point is: aggregating and distributing contextless facts is a significant form of media production in the year 2015. Perhaps, if you grew up reading 20th-century newspapers, this fact makes you feel mad.
But, according to research by Northeastern University professor Ryan Cordell, if a 19th-century time traveler were to arrive in front of a computer, when he or or she stopped marveling at refrigeration and the absence of horseshit and read Buzzfeed, that information consumer might feel right at home.
OK, maybe that is not his precise argument.
But what Cordell calls “information literature” pervaded 19th-century newspapers. That category includes “lists, tables, recipes, scientific reports, trivia columns, and so forth” and they made up “a significant percentage of the top 200-300 most frequently-reprinted pieces in our study.” Cordell, working with a computer scientist to mine the massive old newspaper collection at the Library of Congress, has identified half a million texts that were heavily reprinted. They’d pop up in one newspaper, then get cut and pasted into another and another and another. (Similar to the way Reddit now seeds a gigantic chain of blog posts.)
Cordell even dug up a perfect list of “facts” that was reprinted 120 different times in the second half of the 19th century. That’s better than a John Oliver viral rant video—though it took half a century (1853-1899), not half an hour.
Check out these 15 Amazing Facts About the Human Race, and just imagine them one line at a time, with pictures underneath them.
The number of languages spoken is 4,064. The number of men is about equal to the number of women. The average human life is 33 years. One-quarter die before the age of seven, one-half before the age of seventeen. To every thousand persons one only reaches one hundred years, and not more than one in five hundred will reach eight years. There are on earth 1,000,000,000 inhabitants. Of these, 333,333,333 die every year, 91,824 die every day, 7,789 every hour, 60 every minute, or one every second. These losses are balanced by an equal number of births. The married are longer lived than the single, and above all, those who observe a sober and industrious conduct. Tall men live longer than short ones. Women have more chances of life previous to the age of 50 years than men, but fewer after. The number of marriages are in the proportion of 76 to 100. Marriages are more frequent after equinoxes, that is during the months of June and December. Those born in spring are more robust than others. Births and deaths are more frequent by night than by day.
The facts changed some through time, but the format, this kind of listicle remained the same. People, life, death, love. Buzzfeed gets it: 8 Interesting Facts About Life and Death.
Newspaper editors at the time, far from decrying this aggregation, thought it was a hallmark of their newspaper brands. Cordell quotes an 1853 North Carolina editor: “We have learned during our experience in these duties that a newspaper is not to be judged so much by the amount of original matter it contains as by its selections. It requires close reading and scissors to make up an interesting sheet.”
Cordell builds on these contemporary views. He theorizes that all these facts floating around, all this information, was “a kind of serialized and communally authored compendium of useful knowledge, drawing from and contributing to related genres of the book such as the journal or encyclopedia.”
And he says that including this type of information may have increased the “citability” of the papers, giving them a heft that more ephemeral news did not.
“These widely-reprinted snippets offer insight into newspapers self-construction of their own textual authority and relationship to their readers in a moment in which the landscape of print was itself being radically reassembled,” Cordell writes. “No single snippet accomplished these things, but through accretion a mass of interesting facts, statistics, recipes, and other information literature shaped nineteenth-century readers’ expectations about what a newspaper was for.”
Media producers and consumers—and really, what is the difference anymore?—are ourselves in the process of radically reassembling an information ecosystem. The conditions are very different from the ones 19th-century newspaper editors encountered, but there is a corollary to our current times.
Buzzfeed is trying to create a new type of entertainment/information/news bundle. (So is Fusion, obviously.) And its famed lists do some of that expectation-shaping work. They don’t create human “citability” in the way Cordell describes. But search and discovery algorithms—Facebook and Google’s, in particular—work on a “rich get richer” principle. So, the traffic and visitors and engagement that these posts provide actually drive authority for the overall media property. The algorithm doesn’t care! It just sees engagement. And that creates a fatter distribution pipe for the news that Buzzfeed increasingly bundles in with its other “information literature.”
People seem to think Buzzfeed listicles—and all the listicles from people who do the same thing, but worse—are some passing media fad. But Cordell’s work shows us that this kind of information has appealed to us for a long time—and it will for a long time into the future, I would reckon.
I think Buzzfeed has distilled exactly why. Cordell and other scholars see the utility these types of lists might have offered information consumers. But modern day editors, armed with analytics and headline testing algorithms, have discovered not that people want to learn, but that people want to feel. And, counterintuitively, facts are amazing carriers of emotion.
Whatever else they do, facts make us feel smart. And that feeling is valuable yesterday, today, and tomorrow.