Getting George Takei to share something you made with his 7 million Facebook followers is like crushing a piñata filled with free pageviews. It’s a huge traffic boon for any publisher. And yet, somehow, the Onion‘s new parody site, ClickHole, managed to win the Takei lottery this week with an article that also happened to rip his science/nerd schtick to shreds.
It was a masterstroke of viral manipulation, but, if you’ve been paying attention to the site at all, it also wasn’t very surprising. Since launching in June, ClickHole has been on a tear, earning praise from just about every corner of the Internet. In just about 100 days, the site has surgically ethered everyone from horny Redditors to evangelical Christians to Beyoncé stans. It also posted the entirety of Moby Dick.
Fast Company spoke with ClickHole editor Jermaine Affonso and Onion managing editor Ben Berkley to see how things have been going, what’s been working, and what the thought process was behind a certain NSFW Calvin and Hobbes video.
Jermaine Affonso: We’re feeling good about where we’re at right now. Whenever you’re launching a new thing, there are so many ways that it can go. Obviously the site is still developing its audience, it’s still developing its voice. But it’s exciting to help form that and watch it form.
We have a really unique team of writers with very strong voices. So it’s kind of fun to watch that coalesce into a like a single, strange funny thing.
Ben Berkley: I mean we’re really hitting our stride right now. I think it’s apparent both internally and–we hope–externally. We’re proud of what we’ve been able to produce so far, and what the staff has done. We’re very excited to see where we take it next.
Jermaine: We come in every day with new ideas. We have one big meeting where we bring in a bunch of ideas that are more evergreen, and daily ones that are sort of more timely. I think that in general we tend to know when we have something that strong on our hands. Something that we think will do well. I dunno, what do you think?
Ben: No, I agree. It’s really hard to exactly peg down what it is that people are looking for out of ClickHole just yet. So we’re at this point where we’re just trying to throw as much stuff against the wall as possible and see what sticks. We’re going to be in that mode for a while.
Now we certainly know some areas that people are really interested in. And a lot of areas of Internet culture that when we prod it once, we realize, “Oh, there’s a lot going on there!” People are really passionate about it.
We did an article that really took on Yelp culture, and people really responded to it. So I think that was a sign to us, “Oh, this is an area we can delve into a little further.”
So I thought that Calvin and Hobbes video you did early on (which has since taken down by YouTube for nudity and sexual content) was hilarious. But I know a lot of people didn’t. What was the thinking behind it? Were you guys sort of testing what you could get away with?
Ben: I think we just wanted to try and hit nostalgia from a different angle. Ultimately what happened was some people liked it, some people didn’t. It’s very common for anything in the Onion universe to have that kind of response.
[Ed. note: The conversation sort of paused there.]
What about the George Takei thing? Were you guys celebrating in the office when he finally posted your article?
Jermaine: That was really big for us! That’s one of the fun things we can do with the site, it’s kind of experimenting a lot with the social media aspect of it, too. So obviously we had the piece written, it was about George Takei, but we wanted to have a lot of fun with how we would keep poking him.
So throughout the day, we constantly called him out. We changed our profile picture so that it only displayed his head. And it just became this big fun thing that we tried to get the community involved in. That was a lot of fun.
But it was definitely big when he finally did it. We weren’t sure it was going to happen. We got a retweet first, but then we were like, “We gotta get on that Facebook page!”
Then we got it.
Jermaine: Oh, yeah. For a little while it did really well.
What stories are you extra proud of?
Jermaine: In terms of topical stuff, we recently had an article… I think the headline was “Stunning map shows just how much of Iraq and Syria Vice now controls.” It felt like a good satirical point, it felt like a good point about the Internet and media, and it was something that was right in our wheelhouse. It was also something that we hadn’t done yet, which is call out a site by name.
And I think it was executed well with a good graphic. So I remember going into that piece thinking, “This is going to be really strong.” It was a good piece of content. Similarly, we had a quiz: “Which Iraq war are you?“
Right now, we have a video on the site. The title is “If you don’t think you have any racial prejudices, you better watch this video.” That was an idea that we were talking about in the room, and we had a lot of fun with it. One of our writers, Adam, did such a good job on it. Right from the beginning we knew it going to be a really strong piece of content, and something we felt really proud of. It was funny.
You know these things, we want them to be funny.
Ben: And all of those are just very differently playing with form. We’re still trying to figure that out. On the Onion side, we have a very set form that we’re working within. And obviously that has worked very, very well for us for many years. The thing is with ClickHole, you’re really satirizing a form that is always evolving, so we’re trying to evolve with it. We’re trying to make sure that with everything that’s out there, we’re hitting it the right way. We want to be hitting a lot of different things, and making sure we recognize where the satire is, and what exactly it is we’re poking fun of.
This is more for Jermaine: Has working for ClickHole been liberating, getting to try out all these crazy-ass ideas?
Jermaine: It’s cool because the site doesn’t have that 25- to 26-year history the Onion does. We can experiment and play around with form. But the other good thing is you have the Onion‘s voice and sensibility to anchor it somewhere, so you’re not totally in the wilderness. It’s a good mix. I’m definitely glad that we have that backbone of the Onion. That’s very important for grounding it somewhere.
But yeah, it is liberating. Because it’s not a fake newspaper. It’s a fake aggregator. Our videos don’t have to be a particular format, the articles can be kind of crazy. We have tentpoles, and it has been a lot of fun experimenting and growing.
Ben: I’m going to tell the Onion guys that you think ClickHole is fun.
Jermaine: I can’t think of one necessarily off the top of my head. But with that stuff you kind of have to manage expectations for each piece. Like just because we love something doesn’t mean it will be the hugest hit. Sometimes the other way around happens: Thing will blow up, and we’ll be like, “Oh, we didn’t see that coming.”
The response to everything has been pretty much even and felt good. And we’ve been proud of everything. So…
Jermaine: We’ve done a really good job deconstructing the clickbait aspect of it. And obviously that’s going to be the heart of the site. It’s clickbait parody. But I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface here. We don’t want the site to ever feel tiresome, or feel one-note. We just want to keep evolving and keep growing.
One thing we want to do is play with more forms. Obviously we have the lists, the slideshows, the quizzes. All that stuff. I just think there’s more to be done outside of that. Maybe even creating other things.
Like in the vein of the George Takei thing, more social media stuff. There’s stuff on the Internet that exists outside of a form that can exist on a website or webpage. So really playing with that–a different experience for people following our Twitter, for people who our following our Facebook. Stuff that can exist exclusively there, whether it’s a hashtag or campaign. More content that just exists only there.
I think that’s the next frontier for us. We want to continue to experiment, continue to grow the tentacles of this beast.
Ben: And we’re going to start making freezer packs. Like for lunch boxes. That’s our next big frontier.
All right, last question. In terms of where the site’s at, would you say you’ve: 1. Met your goals? 2. Surpassed them? Or 3. Maybe not have met them?
Ben: In a certain sense I’d say we haven’t really set them yet. At this point it’s still so new. We’re trying to figure out exactly what we want to be, and luckily we have that luxury right now.
The company has given us a chance to create. And that’s really what we’re focused on right now. As Jermaine said earlier, we’re very proud of what we’ve done so far. We feel like we’re just barely scratching the surface of what the site can be.