The Onion has been on the Internet for a long time — since 1996, actually. Before that, the famous fake news outlet began in print, but most of us within the demographic of 18-34 year olds only recognize it due to a significant online presence, featuring anything from satires of VICE magazine documentaries to articles with names like “Scientists Find Strong Link Between Male Virility, Wearing Mötley Crue Denim Jacket” and “Mom Leaks Out Another Divorce Detail During Drive to SAT Prep Class.” Unsurprisingly, a model so successful is bound to have its spin-offs, Cornell-related spin-offs included. And from the looks of it, the Onion does not show signs of slowing down. Its past few years as a company have been ones of expansion and growth, taking its momentum primarily, of course, from its flagship fake news website, but also from other clever concoctions such as ClickHole and StarWipe.
But what is it about the Onion that seems to make it so popular? Its tight connection with Internet culture seems to be one thing. When your fake news outlet awards the 2014 Person of the Year award to both Malala and John Cena, I think it is safe to say the Internet has influenced your decision, because even an ironic nomination is still a way in which the joke ends up published out there, presented as information or truth. Certainly, in this way the Onion is a singular entity. Its ability to adjust and articulate political standpoints, personal despair or the hypocrisy of everyday life prove it has its fingers on at least a couple important pulses. Or take the bizarre critiques and sophomoric surrealism of one of its more recent hits, ClickHole, for example. It is, of course, an obvious indictment of the mindless consumerist nightmare we know as clickbait, yet it also functions as a way of exposing the malleability of the truth and information fired point blank at us daily.
From ClickHole (and from the Onion), we see that a news and culture format we took for granted can be called into question via parody or reenactment. And if news and clickbait can be performed, and essentially gutted of all seriousness, it can be laid out bare in front of us. The ways in which we are subsumed by the culture-at-large can be exposed. A news headline can lie to you just like fiction can. In fact, a news headline is just another form of fiction, able to be appropriated for whatever political or social purpose at hand, only respected because its language and position presuppose authority and truth in our world. You can watch the formula applied to content farms and memes as well, showing that they too have slowly become another cultural commodity. They too are just another manifestation of someone trying to sell you something.
It seems like language also plays a vital role with the Onion’s popularity. The tone of a newspaper headline marks an intense compression of language into its role as a conveyor of truth. You cut the syntax down, as there is no need for complete sentences. You make sure the vocabulary is powerful and attention-grabbing, usually at the risk of sensationalism. And while the linguistic nuances of Harry Potter quizzes and Buzzfeed articles turn out completely different from the economic prose of news outlets, the underlying premise — that the language of this information affects you just as much as the information itself — remains the same. These satires serve a key function. They render transparent the means by which language has control over us. And noticing these structures is the first step to considering them critically. I am not going to decry Internet culture, if there is or ever will be such a thing. Nor will I stand on a platform and morally bash the consumerism of everyone around me, because I am involved in pithy celebrations of life just as much as the next guy. What I will say is that before believing something, before looking someone else in the eye and repeating your memories as if they were realizations you had come to naturally, understand how that message has been delivered to you, how it has been designed, thought out, crafted, revised. A satire which causes significant dissonance with the ways we digest and absorb content in our digital lives has a critically unique role in our culture. It gives us these questions, and it creates these doubts, and ultimately we are more conscious of our digital and physical selves, as well as of the world around us, because of it.
Stephen Meisel is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] Appearances runs alternate Fridays this semester.