Quizzes go pop

Alyssa Maiale, 21, is a Philadelphia University student and avid online quiz-taker. For her the quizzes are a way to bond with friends, online and off. Her boyfriend, though, complains that they're a waste of time.
Alyssa Maiale, 21, is a Philadelphia University student and avid online quiz-taker. For her the quizzes are a way to bond with friends, online and off. Her boyfriend, though, complains that they're a waste of time.

Like grade school all over: Online quizzes let quizzees self-evaluate in a pop-cult way, then share with friends what kind of tree they'd be. Or whatever.

Posted: March 13, 2014

Recently, Rodney Ibarra, a graphic designer from Hammonton, N.J., created an image and posted it on social media. It was a faux screen-capture of a personality quiz asking the ever-important meta-question: "What kind of quiz are you?"

The gag was almost believable, given the deluge of quizzes flooding Facebook pages and Twitter streams of late, inviting users to learn what kind of cat they'd be, what historical period they're suited to, or which Downton Abbey character they resemble.

"These quizzes are just becoming so rampant online - and, as much as I find myself taking them, I felt they were really silly, because they don't really get to the core of anything," Ibarra said. "But I really love how, if it falls in your favor, it's something you boast about and share."

Ibarra, 37, said he has taken about 20 quizzes, mostly on BuzzFeed - one of several websites that began putting resources into quizzes this year and unlocked massive viral potential. One BuzzFeed quiz - "What state do you actually belong in?" - has been viewed nearly 40 million times.

Pinar Yildirim, an assistant professor of marketing at Penn's Wharton School, said the burgeoning of quizzes makes sense. "Look at the popularity of selfies," she said. "Everyone loves to talk about themselves and share something about themselves. Online quizzes allow the consumer to learn something about themselves, as true or as fake as it may be, and then share it with their friends."

Alyssa Maiale, 21, a fashion management student at Philadelphia University, grew up on the quizzes in Tiger Beat magazine. Now, she takes at least two a day, on her phone between classes or on her computer in the evening.

Maiale recently discovered that, were she a breakfast cereal, she'd be Lucky Charms. And if she gets married, a destination wedding is in order.

Since she thought the results were accurate, she shared them on Facebook, inviting friends to identify their own cereal alter-egos.

Even longtime Web-content producers have been taken aback by the popularity of quizzes - which, as most everyone knows, are based on common knowledge, not science. (If you've got a wild side, expect your Muppet to be Animal.)

"They've taken off dramatically for us," said John Newlin, vice president of content for Livingly Media, which launched quizzes on its entertainment site, Zimbio, on Jan. 15. "The Facebook shares we get from these things is kind of unprecedented, really. We did one called 'Which Big Bang Theory character are you?' and it got 4.5 million shares on Facebook. Those are crazy numbers."

Newlin theorized that the timing was just right.

"Maybe for some reason we're a society trying more so than usual to answer the question 'Who am I?' right now," he said. "And now we offer you the chance to say, 'Princess Leia.' " (That was Newlin's case when he took Zimbio's "Which Star Wars character are you?" quiz. He took it twice, hoping for Han Solo.)

He said the most popular quizzes are on topics people closely relate to, like franchise movies and TV shows. The most-shared results are those that are funny, campy, or in some way flattering.

For example, Newlin analyzed social shares of a quiz called "Which magical Tolkien creature are you?" He said, "Those who got 'an elf' are more than twice as likely to share their results on Facebook as those who got 'a hobbit' or 'a wizard.' "

But broadcasting quiz results isn't exclusively a boastful act. It's also an invitation to a dialog.

"With hundreds of friends [online], it's hard to connect with everyone all the time," said Ibarra. "So if I keep posting things that interest me and that I like, I really try to open up a conversation."

Given the booming economy of sharing, those conversations are big business, Yildirim said. Not only can they bring sites eyeballs, which in turn can bring advertising revenue, but they can also provide content producers with lots of information about consumers and their interests and preferences.

And there may be more than ad dollars and a few minutes' entertainment at stake.

How people interact on social media - even around something as trivial as the question "What Disney princess are you?" - might influence their interpersonal relationships in more substantial ways.

Carnegie Mellon University professor Robert Kraut and Facebook research scientist Moira Burke recently analyzed the interactions of Facebook users and their sense of closeness in relationships. They found that reading friends' updates and commenting back was associated with a sense of increased closeness. (Merely "liking" a post was not enough to have that effect; users had to actually type a comment.) On the flip side, posts that received no comments were associated with decreased closeness.

Kraut didn't analyze quizzes specifically. But, he said, "to the extent that they represent something to talk about, they would start a spiral of beneficial communication. On the other hand, if they're perceived as the equivalent of social-media spam . . . that might, in fact, cause you to explicitly reject those people."

For Maiale, the quizzes have become a way to bond with friends, online and off. (She admits, though, that not everyone appreciates them: Her boyfriend complains that they're a waste of time.)

"My sorority sisters and I talk about this stuff outside of the Internet. It's a whole new phenomenon now," she said. A recent BuzzFeed quiz, "What food matches your personality?", triggered a debate when Maiale and a friend got the same result. "We know there's no way we're both a hot buttered roll," she said, laughing.

Maiale has taken at least 100 quizzes, and isn't tiring of them.

But Yildirim notes that Internet trends, and the companies behind them, can come and go quickly.

"The consumption pattern of consumers might change in a relatively short amount of time, maybe five or 10 years," she said. "If at any point these online quizzes were considered just a waste of time, there's a possibility they might go away. It certainly doesn't look like it, though."


smelamed@phillynews.com

215-854-5053

@samanthamelamed

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