In a blog post after he was laid off, BuzzFeed’s former director of Quizzes, Matthew Perpetua, revealed a startling detail about his corner of the digital media behemoth: Much of the site’s sizable quiz traffic comes from amateur quizzes created for free by members of the user-generated content hub BuzzFeed Community—and lately, “the second highest traffic driver worldwide has been a community user in Michigan who is a teenager in college who, for some reason, makes dozens of quizzes every week.”
Who is this college student who has put in so many hours of unpaid work to create quizzes for a company that generated $300 million in revenue last year? We reached out to the amateur quizmaster, Rachel McMahon, a 19-year-old studying communications at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. She answered questions via DM about her hobby, her thoughts on BuzzFeed’s recent layoffs—which, on Twitter, she worried were her fault—and whether she has anything to say to BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Slate: When did you start making quizzes, and what made you want to start?
Rachel McMahon: I made my first BuzzFeed quiz on April 13, 2017, but my first promoted quiz (where it was published on the BuzzFeed quiz page) wasn’t until April 28, 2017. I was in high school at the time, and during my yearbook class I always had free time because I’d get my work done really fast. So, my friend Katie and I would always take BuzzFeed quizzes in class and one day, I realized that anyone could make them and I thought that was so cool! My first few quizzes weren’t the greatest, as you can expect, but over time my quizzes have thankfully improved.
In November of 2017, after lots of my quizzes had been promoted, I got an email saying this:
So I was now in a Facebook group full of other BuzzFeed community users like myself. It was great because there are BuzzFeed workers who specialize in the community section also in the group who help us, and even have us do challenges to keep us going :)
So you’ve been making quizzes for almost two (!) years—that’s a long time! What made you want to keep going?
Yes it’s been a long time! It hasn’t seemed that long though. I love to make them. It’s become a hobby for me. I love creating them and seeing others enjoy them.
How many quizzes would you say you’ve made at this point?
I don’t know an exact number of quizzes but it’s definitely very high! Too many to count!
[Note: We counted. Rachel averages 40 to 50 quizzes per month.]
How do you come up with your quiz ideas?
BuzzFeed quizzes are known to be very random. So most of the time, I just get a random thought and write it down. Sometimes I’ll seek something out and that will spark an idea, but most of the time, it’s just a random thought.
Do you have a favorite quiz you’ve made, or one that sticks out to you?
Actually, yes: Nick Jonas actually took my “Which Jonas Brother Are You?” quiz on Jimmy Fallon’s show!
Your BuzzFeed profile says, “Hire me @ buzzfeed”—was that your original hope/goal with these quizzes?
A job at BuzzFeed was something I had seriously thought of, but I wasn’t too confident I’d ever be able to make it into such a big company. Now, I don’t think I see it as much of a career option.
Personally, I don’t think it’s much of a career option anymore because of the cutbacks. If BuzzFeed is going to rely mostly on community, I don’t think a job position for me would even be available.
What was your reaction to hearing about the layoffs?
I was shocked! I found out a few days ago, before it went viral like it did. On our community FB page, some of the amazing workers posted that they had been laid off and would no longer be with us. They wished us all the best. I was so confused, and it just didn’t make sense to me! It wasn’t until today when I saw Matthew’s blog post that it finally made sense to me why the layoffs happened. Because BF figured out they could use the community members’ content for free
Did finding that out make you feel taken advantage of?
Not necessarily. I always understood that I was giving away my content for free. It just made me feel horrible about those being laid off. They all worked so hard.
You tweeted that you felt like your hobby could be to blame for the layoffs.
When I first read about the layoffs, it broke me. I felt as if I was the main reason for them, and it didn’t feel good whatsoever. I never thought my hobby could turn bad, and seeing how devastated and frustrated all these laid-off BuzzFeed workers were just crushed me. I’m thankful for all the reassurance from everyone, because without it, I would probably still feel that weight on my shoulders.
I mean, I’m just a college student doing it for fun. I never knew this would happen.
BuzzFeed’s former director of Quizzes, Matthew Perpetua, told me this about you: “We were all quite fixated on Rachel’s success in the past several months—there had always been community power users, but her level of success and extremely prolific production was an outlier.” He said that they even studied and learned from your quizzes.
Omg, wow. I knew my quizzes were liked but hearing that is insane. I just wish I could use that success and turn it into something I can use for a future career, or at least a way to earn money.
Are you interested in working in media after all this?
Yes, definitely. Although I don’t know exactly what I want to do careerwise, I am very interested in the social media/digital field. I was hoping my accomplishments at BuzzFeed could help get my name out there, but a lot of people are now replying to my tweets saying I shouldn’t be working for free. I never had the intention to get paid by BuzzFeed. I think BuzzFeed would probably laugh in my face if I asked for money, knowing they have all these other community contributors to lean on. Although I’m their biggest community contributor, I’m just one piece.
Did the BuzzFeed team ever send you anything, like swag?
Yes! I got a card for Christmas. I got BuzzFeed swag and some Amazon gift cards multiple times.
After all this, has your personal opinion of BuzzFeed changed?
It has changed a little. I’m definitely more skeptical of them.
Do you think you’ll do what some people are suggesting and try to monetize the kind of work you’re doing online? Or will you keep making quizzes for free as a BuzzFeed community member?
I’m definitely thinking of finding a way to monetize this kind of thing. The big problem is I’m young and don’t know how at the moment. I think I’m going to start by at least taking a break from making quizzes for free. It just doesn’t seem fair to the people who were laid off. The company shouldn’t be using me for my hobby.
Do you have anything to say to Jonah Peretti, the CEO of BuzzFeed?
I’ve never been in contact with Jonah, but I just hope he realizes he made a mistake. I am fan of BuzzFeed, but recently, the news has shocked me. They let go some amazing workers, and when BuzzFeed’s numbers drop, I hope he realizes why.