By Frank Witsil
Detroit Free Press
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Rachel McMahon became famous after she quit working for BuzzFeed because a blog post from an employee who was being laid off outed her as the author behind so many of the media company’s quizzes. While McMahon wasn’t getting paid to make those quizzes, these days she is being paid very well via multiple revenue streams.
Detroit Free Press
Rachel McMahon, a west Michigan teen obsessed with pop star Justin Bieber, made national headlines when she was identified, outed?, earlier this year as the unpaid author of nearly 700 BuzzFeed quizzes.
Now she has a book, “What Kind of Quiz Book Are You?”, that is set to be released in early July.
“When I got the email saying that Simon & Schuster wanted to do a book with me, I kind of thought it was a joke at first, because, I’m like, ‘This is crazy!’ ” McMahon, 19, of Hudsonville, said in an interview earlier this month. “Like, I never expected to do something like this, but it’s so cool that I to have this opportunity now and I’m just really excited to have it.”
And what’s even cooler: She’s earning real money for it.
The 352-page book is billed as a “fun, lighthearted, and thought-provoking” collection of quizzes and “irreverent commentary” that is “destined to become as addictive as coloring books.”
She also has freelance gigs writing quizzes with media companies on both coasts; a professional publicist, who sits in on her interviews; and a summer internship with USA Today, which, like the Free Press, is part of Gannett and is based in McLean, Virginia.
But more than authoring a book that will retail for $16 and her clever online quizzes, the fresh-faced Grand Valley State University sophomore is part of a bigger debate about the power of the internet.
The discussion she inadvertently spurred has raised questions about the role of unpaid folks, like her, at media companies that generate revenue from their labor and who ultimately may be displacing paid workers.
It’s hardly a new debate, especially in a high-tech age.
Waze, a Google-owned navigation app, relies on thousands of unpaid volunteers to help fine-tune its maps. And there are even advice articles telling business owners how to slice payroll, like this one on the American Express website: “How to Get People to Work for Cheap (or Free).”
Estimates of how much McMahon helped BuzzFeed make have ranged from about $200,000, BuzzFeed’s estimate, to as much as $3.8 million, about 1 percent of the company’s revenue for 2018.
“Digital life, like life in general, has positive and negative aspects,” said Karen McDevitt, a Wayne State University instructor on new media. “Economically, digital media has not really found a sustainable business model. It’s based on virality.”
That means, McDevitt said, companies must get a lot of attention.
“The joy of the internet is that we can access everything, and the problem with that goes back to that unsustainable business model,” McDevitt added. “If you post something online, why should I have to pay to access that? The thinking is that it should be free. So how do we pay people to do that?”
WHO IS RAECHILLING?
McMahon became famous after she quit working for BuzzFeed because a blog post from an employee who was being laid off outed her as the author behind so many of the media company’s quizzes.
Until then, she said, she didn’t really understand how big of a role she had in BuzzFeed’s revenue strategy, how many people were taking her little quizzes or how digital media made money.
“I didn’t realize that I shouldn’t have been doing that, because I was giving away this free content,” McMahon said in a recent Free Press interview. “I feel like it just opened my eyes to how, in the digital age now, you have to think about that stuff and you have to think about it a lot more than you used to.”
In previous interviews, the teen said she made the quizzes for fun, and BuzzFeed, in appreciation, sent her four $30 Amazon gift cards, BuzzFeed branded swag like a sweatshirt, and handwritten notes praising her work.
But on Jan. 28, Matthew Perpetua, a BuzzFeed employee, announced on his blog, Fluxblog.com, that after working at the news organization for 6 1/2 years, mostly as director of quizzes, he was being laid off.
In the third paragraph, he dropped a bomb.
He said BuzzFeed was using “unpaid community volunteers,” one of which he identified as a Michigan “teenager in college” who is “the second-highest traffic driver worldwide.” He was talking about McMahon.
BuzzFeed countered that the teen was the fifth-highest traffic generator.
Either way, Perpetua’s message was clear: A kid working for nothing could replace him.
News outlets pounced on the story.
New York Post: “This girl made BuzzFeed bundles of cash, and all she got was a lousy T-shirt.” New Yorker: “The BuzzFeed Layoffs and the Case of the Teen-Age Quiz-Maker.” Free Press: “Michigan teen who made 700 BuzzFeed quizzes for free: No more”
The Free Press wrote that McMahon started creating her quizzes, which “covered an array of quirky topics but especially favorite junk foods,” as a Hudsonville High School student.
She made them to kill time at the end of yearbook class.
Up until then, most people taking the BuzzFeed quizzes McMahon wrote knew her only by her online handle, Raechilling, and they might have assumed she was older or a paid staffer.
LIKE BIEBER FEVER
But, after Perpetua’s post, McMahon said she wasn’t going to be making free quizzes for BuzzFeed. If she had known that her free work was going to lead to people getting laid off, she added, she wouldn’t have done it.
And that’s when the media put her in the spotlight.
Vice, which also interviewed McMahon and her parents at their home, produced a 6-minute video in February, “Meet the Teen Genius Who Probably Made Your Favorite BuzzFeed Quiz.”
The video captured a bit of McMahon’s personality. It showed her bed with a frilly dust ruffle and a slate-blue comforter covered with stars and constellations, that matched the pillows, that matched a wall that looked like a night sky.
Another wall was covered with photos of singer Justin Bieber.
“I even hid something from you, but, I think I should just,” McMahon said, voice trailing off on the video while pulling a life-size Bieber cutout from her closet. “It normally sits over there, but it’s kind of in front of the window so at night it’s kind of like someone is staring at me.”
Bieber was the inspiration for the very first online quiz McMahon ever wrote: “What Justin Bieber Album Are You?”
That quiz was designed to match your personality with the pop-star’s music titles. All of her quizzes are like that. They give people an opportunity for some lighthearted introspection.
But, in some ways, Bieber and McMahon have something in common: Posting their talents on the internet for free has brought them some fame.
At 12, the well-known story goes, Bieber was posting videos of himself performing, and that’s how music industry insiders found him. At 15, the music star said in an ABC News interview, that the videos gradually took off: 100 views, 1,000 views, 10,000 views.
Then, Bieber said, his manager flew him to meet his idol, Usher.
That led to a bidding war and a music contract, and in some ways, the rest of his arc to becoming a superstar is documented in the neatly arranged photos of him displayed on McMahon’s bedroom wall.
“I’ve been a fan of him, like, ever since he started,” McMahon said. “I was very young, and I just saw a cute singer. That’s kind of the first thing I liked. But, as I’ve grown, and he’s grown, you just get closer to the artist.”
McMahon, of course, hasn’t reached Bieber’s level of stardom. But, who knows.
AN INTERNET SENSATION
Part of what made McMahon so valuable, even though she didn’t know it, is she has an innate ability to make quizzes that people want to take and share with others. It is a skill increasingly in demand because the internet is an ocean of information.
To understand why, consider this:
In just one second, Internet Live Stats estimates this is what is being sent into cyberspace: 8,415 Tweets, 903 Instagram photos, 1,503 Tumblr posts, 3,696 Skype calls, 69,653 gigabits of internet traffic, 73,179 Google searches, 77,925 YouTube videos and 2,780,888 emails.
So, of the zillions and zillions of things constantly filling the ‘net, which includes clever quizzes, music performances, and even news articles, only a tiny fraction of them, like Bieber’s videos as a boy, go viral.
In the Vice interview, McMahon said she doesn’t have a formula for figuring out what quizzes people will like.
She always just considered it a creative outlet.
“A lot of people have been just, like, talking to me, saying, like, I don’t think you realize that, like, you have this talent where you can just know what people want. And I just never thought of it like that. I just thought I was making quizzes for fun.”
She’s still making quizzes, but now as a paid gig.
Playbuzz, based in New York is one of the companies.
Zimbio, a Redwood City, California-media outlet, is the other. One of McMahon’s latest quizzes for Zimbio tries to reveal whether your best friend would be Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel.
And while she wouldn’t disclose her pay, she said it’s more, per quiz, than what BuzzFeed was giving her in gift cards.
She also wouldn’t say exactly how much she’s getting for her new book, but it’s enough that she can pay many of her college expenses and likely won’t have to graduate with student debt.
And, in recent weeks, she’s had one more success.
She finally met her celebrity obsession. She said in a Facebook post that she heard “Justin was supposedly going to be in Detroit.” So, she drove 2 1/2 hours to meet him and his wife, Hailey, for “a quick second.”
She wrote that he “came by in his car and rolled down the window to talk.”
She ended her post with an all-caps hashtag, “#BESTYEAROFMYLIFE.”
“Ever since September 2018, great things have just been happening and I’m just really enjoying it,” she said, summing up her year so far. “I don’t know what I did to get all these great experiences, but I’m really happy it’s happening.”