By JC Reindl
Detroit Free Press
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Rachel McMahon decided to stop making the quizzes in the wake of news that more than 200 staffers from BuzzFeed were recently laid off.
Detroit Free Press
The unpaid Michigan teenager who was named as a top internet traffic generator for the popular website BuzzFeed said she won’t be making any more quizzes for the site known for its listicles, cat videos and other viral content after learning of recent staff layoffs there.
Rachel McMahon, 19, a Grand Valley State University sophomore and Hudsonville High School graduate, voluntarily created nearly 700 online quizzes for BuzzFeed free of charge from 2017 until recently, with some of them garnering more than 800,000 page views on the website.
Her quizzes covered an array of quirky topics but especially favorite junk foods, and served up answers to questions such as Which Pop-Tart Flavor Represents You Best and “Which One of Justin Bieber’s Many Haircuts Are You Most Like?”
She began making quizzes as a way to kill time at the end of yearbook class during her senior year at Hudsonville, where she graduated in 2017.
The first quiz that she submitted to BuzzFeed, “What Justin Bieber album are you,” ended up one of her lowest-ranked quizzes with only 605 page views. Her first mega-hit came two weeks later when BuzzFeed staff liked and promoted on the website her quiz concerning food preferences that “reveal which TV character you are.”
“After that, pretty much all of my quizzes were promoted,” she said.
But McMahon decided to stop making any more of her addictive quizzes in the wake of a blog post by BuzzFeed’s now-former director of Quizzes and Games, who was among the more than 200 staffers from BuzzFeed and related news site BuzzFeed News who were recently laid off.
The post, titled “How Laid Off Are You,” said quizzes are a significant driver of web traffic and revenue for BuzzFeed, and that a large portion of them are created by unpaid non-staff members such as McMahon, known as community volunteers.
It referenced McMahon as the No. 2 traffic driver for all of BuzzFeed in 2018. However, a BuzzFeed spokesperson said Wednesday that McMahon was actually the website’s No. 5 contributor.
“It’s kinda amazing how much revenue-generating traffic the site gets from unpaid community volunteers,” the former director, Matthew Perpetua, wrote in the blog post. “So, in a ruthless capitalist way, it makes sense for the company to pivot to having community users create almost all of the quizzes going forward.”
In a Free Press interview, McMahon said that until she saw the blog post, she never knew that her quizzes were so wildly popular. She had never inquired with BuzzFeed about getting any payment for them, she said, and the only material goods she received from the digital media company were four $30 Amazon gift certificates, a BuzzFeed sweatshirt and T-shirt and several water bottles.
“I was like, ‘Wow.’ I knew I was doing well and getting a lot of (page) views, but I didn’t know I was doing that much for BuzzFeed. It was crazy!” McMahon said.
Some social media users have speculated that McMahon’s web traffic was worth in excess of $1 million in ad revenue for BuzzFeed. However, A BuzzFeed spokesperson said that such figures are “wildly inaccurate.”
After reading the laid-off manager’s blog post, McMahon said she decided to take a break from making BuzzFeed quizzes because she felt bad that her willingness to create free content might have led to paid staffers losing jobs.
For McMahon, it had been fun making the quizzes and a thrill to watch their page views numbers take off, she said.
“If I would have known that BuzzFeed was going to lay all these workers off who really helped me and all the other community users, I definitely wouldn’t have continued posting as crazy as I did,” she said. “I wouldn’t have wanted to hurt them.”
McMahon, who lives at home in Hudsonville, Mich., and commutes to Grand Valley, said that only her mother and a few friends knew that she was the creator of so many BuzzFeed quizzes. They often seemed surprised to learn how she wasn’t paid for any of the work, she said.
“I always told them it was kind of like a hobby,” McMahon said. “Whenever I was bored, I was like ‘Oh, I can just make a quiz.’ ”
She said it typically takes her about 15 to 20 minutes to create a quiz, but longer for quizzes featuring lots of photographs or images that must be tracked down on the internet.
She came up with most of her quiz topics on her own, sometimes with help from BuzzFeed’s trending topics data or from BuzzFeed staff that specifically requested holiday-themed content. McMahon said she noticed that food themes tend to resonate well with BuzzFeed’s audience.
“People seem to really like the Pop-Tart ones,” she said.
A communications major at Grand Valley, McMahon has received numerous job opportunities and even job offers since news broke of her BuzzFeed accomplishments. She said she intends to stay in college and is considering a career in digital or social media.
BuzzFeed offered an upbeat assessment of McMahon and her abilities, issuing a statement that called her “a phenomenal creator with an intuitive understanding of what makes quizzes so irresistible.”
“We’d be all too lucky to hire her when she graduates from college,” the statement said. “She is exceptional, and an exception among our contributors, only 0.17 percent have had four or more posts make it onto our home page or into our social feeds.”
The media company’s news division BuzzFeed News came under scrutiny earlier this month for a story that claimed President Donald Trump directed his attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to construct a Trump Tower in Moscow.
BuzzFeed continued to defend the story, despite a rare statement from special counsel Robert Mueller III that disputed its accuracy.