Buzzfeed as a Portal: Readers’ Accessibility (Position Paper)

“The discussion around eating disorders on social media platforms can be tricky, however. Instagram blocks certain hashtags associated with the promotion of eating disorders such as #Thinspo and #ProAna. Instagram told Buzzfeed News that tags like #Anorexia are allowed, though, because they facilitate a conversation about recovery. And any non-blocked tags associated with eating disorders come with a warning alert for triggering imagery. Despite these safeguards, variations of blocked hashtags are still viewable, and often suggested in Instagram’s search box when a user types in a banned phrase.

Ashleigh says that there are secret hashtags some members use to get around these restrictions, but she’s unaware of what they are.”

The instance of social media that will be analyzed throughout this paper is a Buzzfeed post titled “Meet the Teen Girls Using Instagram to Recover from Anorexia” by Rachael Krishna, a Buzzfeed staff member, and can be found in their “Big Stories” category. This post looks at several individuals, but mostly Ashleigh Ponder, who used Instagram to document her disorder and recovery, while simultaneously using it as a tool to search for fellow frustrated anorexia patients (Krishna). Although the content is interesting, I will be focusing more on its formal components to illustrate my position on this social media platform.

Buzzfeed acts as a portal, in terms of it referring to other sources in its content, and it is through this function that it allows readers accessibility to obtain additional information. These sources refer to other social media outlets, such as Instragram, and include the use of images to simulate its environment. References to other digital writing sources are also included, such as research studies. I find this to be quite useful in comparison to printed text where the reader is only presented with the author’s input, whereas in the Buzzfeed environment we are given access to the multiplicities of resources that the Web provides for us.

Andrew Rice describes Buzzfeed as a “hyperactive amalgam: simultaneously a journalism website, a purveyor of funny lists, and a perpetual pop-culture plebiscite where you can vote on articles with bright-yellow buttons reading lol, wtf, and omg.” Its content ranges from Hollywood coverage to sports to long-form journalism, and produces over hundreds of posts a day while applying theories of virality to original articles, but mostly on material that has already been created by a third party (Rice). However, Buzzfeed is not the first to recycle information, A.E.S. mentions how Time magazine originally started out by aggregating news from other newspapers before transitioning into creating its own content (A.E.S.) It is through this sharing of information that we can apply Hayles’ thoughts on digital writing from Writing Machines to Buzzfeed as a whole, but more specifically to the aforementioned post. Hayles mentions that looking at materiality helps us to understand how literature is changing under the impact of information technologies (Hayles 19). Through Krishna’s article, we can see how literature can include other sources, evolving into a hypertext, which allows readers more access to information from a variety of outlets and demonstrates how literature can change when placed in a digital environment. This information can also be digitally shared among a wide audience, for example Rice describes Buzzfeed as an odd numbered roommate, “Buzzfeed’s articles only nominally live on their website, spending most of their time out of the house as links on social networks like Facebook and Twitter” (Rice). A.E.S. elaborates that around seventy five percent of Buzzfeed’s traffic comes from these social media websites, where people share links to stories with friends (A.E.S.).

Regarding Krishna’s article, Hayles mentions terminology that can be applied as its characteristics, the first one being ‘cybertext’ and how Aarseth’s concept describes it as a group of texts that use combinatorial strategies, mostly other software functionalities (Hayles 27). Krishna did not use other web-oriented languages but included images and references that encourage the reader to physically interact with the information, such as clicking on hyperlinks to gain access to other websites, which is not possible through printed text. In addition, this article can be referred to as a hypertext. Hayles mentions that “hypertext has at a minimum the three characteristics of multiple reading paths, chunked text, and some kind of linking mechanism to connect the chunks” (Hayles 26). The article’s multiple reading paths include these aforesaid hyperlinks, which link the reader to different web pages, such as a research study that can be used to provide evidence and back story behind a statistic. For example, Krishna mentions that “725 000 people in the UK are currently affected by an eating disorder, according to an estimate in a study conducted in February” and uses this statement as a portal in which readers can click on a part of the sentence and be taken to the b-eat website that displays this information. Other links included in the article refer the reader to a Thesaurus page when the author mentions an adolescent psychiatrist who is ‘welcoming’ of the idea of the development of these self help communities on social media, as well as concluding the article with links to Ashleigh’s Instagram account (Krishna). It is through these multiple reading paths that readers gain access to outside information that can then be utilized to obtain better understanding of the author’s retelling of Ashleigh’s story. In terms of Hayles’ second characteristic of hypertexts, Krishna uses chunked text by separations of a variety of images that illustrate the meaning behind a particular chunk. For example, Krishna displays a picture of Ashleigh in between two images of her food posts to demonstrate the kind of content that is presented in Ashleigh’s Instagram (Krishna). It is through these images that readers gain access to Instagram’s environment, which can be inaccessible to those without their own account. Lastly, Hayles’ linking mechanism can refer to the inclusion of cross-references (Hayles 26). In Krishna’s article we see how a reference to the National Centre for Eating Disorder Association’s website can elaborate on a story. Freya, a recovering anorexic patient, mentions how traumatic childhood experiences were the cause of her disorder. It is through this cross-reference that the reader learns that this cause is a common correlation found among other anorexic patients, according to the website’s studies (Krishna). Therefore, the readers are given access to this additional information that provides elaboration to an interviewee’s perspective.

One of Hayles’ critics, W.J.T. Mitchell, mentions how readers should look at the textimage, words and images together, in order to successfully analyze a text, thus “once an image has been introduced… literary critics have everything they need” (Hayles 20). This is not completely true since words, among other components, can provide readers with additional information. I will demonstrate this in a close reading analysis of a passage from Krishna’s article to show how its rhetorical elements can expand on the topic of accessibility. Firstly, the passage uses terminology that refers to ideas of access, specifically terms such as: allowed, blocked, non-blocked, suggested, viewable, secret, restrictions, and banned (Krishna). This relates to how information can be filtered depending on what the source wants you to see. “Instagram told Buzzfeed News” indicates how Buzzfeed has close access to this source and is able to discuss their reasoning about what is or not banned. For example, #Anorexia is not banned but #ProAna and #Thinspo are banned because #Anorexia is able to facilitate a discussion about recovery unlike the other hashtags (Krishna). It is through this incorporation of Instagram’s “terminology” in the article, via the hashtags, that readers gain further understanding of the issue behind discussion of eating disorders on social media, in particular Instagram. Thirdly, Krishna uses a physical separation between the two texts displayed in the passage. It is through this separation that the author’s intention, of illustrating Instagram and Ashleigh as two distinct parties and sources of information, can be shown to observant readers. For example, in Ashleigh’s isolated paragraph it mentions secret hashtags that users can use to get around these restrictions but “she’s unaware of what they are” (Krishna), demonstrates how Buzzfeed is limited by its sources, in regards to their accessibility to information depends on the source’s knowledge. This ties in with the relationship between readers and Buzzfeed, in that the readers’ accessibility depends on how much additional information Buzzfeed wants to include in their articles.

In conclusion, it is through Buzzfeed’s features that allow readers to gain more accessibility than what a printed text could provide in its limited flexibility. For instance, Buzzfeed is a website that acts as an archive due to its inclusion of outside sources in its articles, therefore the reader has access to the infinite Web which leads to additional flexibility in obtaining information. Buzzfeed is also a cybertext and a hypertext which allows this increased accessibility to occur due to multiple readings paths and linking mechanisms which act as connectors to the portal that Buzzfeed creates. Consequently, I believe that Buzzfeed, as well as other digital writing, provide their readers with more accessibility than can be accomplished with printed materials, due to its materiality being the digital environment that is the Web.

Word Count: 1406

Works Cited

A.E.S. “BuzzFeed Gets Fed.” The Economist 11 Aug. 2014: n. pag. Web.

Hayles, Katherine N. Writing Machines. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2002. Web.

Krishna, Rachael. “Meet The Teen Girls Using Instagram To Recover From Anorexia.” Buzzfeed. N.p., 17 Sept. 2015. Web.

Rice, Andrew. “Does BuzzFeed Know the Secret?” New York Magazine 7 Apr. 2013: n. pag. Web.

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