#InnovationSeries: Nigeria and the year of the Buzzfeed clones

by Edwin Okolo

This feature is a part of the YNaija Innovation Special – a set of insightful stories that dig deep into the spirit of innovation, enterprise, and creativity oft-talked about but seldom told as stories in Nigerian media.

The series which kicked off with the release of The New Establishment list, our annual 50-strong list of the new school of leaders, innovators, creative and entrepreneurs, will run throughout January.

2015 had been a weird year for media. Linda Ikeji officially assumed her throne as Nigeria’s most viable media brand, braving an election year fraught with allegiances and a Google investigation to rake in hundreds of millions of naira in annual revenue. BellaNaija had diversified its content so thoroughly and taken on verticals and was struggling to find its audience outside of fashion and weddings. Y! and YNaija was rebranding, shedding excess weight and trying to find new buoyancy. And readers across Nigeria were tired of the establishment and ready for new perspectives. It came in the form of a listicle.

By March 2015 Big Cabal media helmed by Oluwafemi Bankole and Seyi Taylor had conquered tech reporting with Tech Cabal. Thanks to Oluwafemi’s earnest expositions on the oft-mysterious world of tech and Taylor’s savvy politics, Tech Cabal managed to draw and keep the attention of the majority of the tech media audience and were bringing more people in. More importantly, Tech Cabal was bringing in money. But tech is niche, and Big Cabal had plans of conquering the mainstream. There were two readily routes available to them; style and humor. They fiddled with the idea of a fashion vertical, done properly with the kind of accessibility the existing leaders in the field hadn’t managed. It seemed a great idea in theory, but finding the right team to bring the idea to life was harder than it seemed. Fashion still had gate keepers without whom opinions lacked credence and remained that, opinions. They shelved the idea and turned to their plan B, humor.

Many people misunderstand that Big Cabal is first and foremost a media company, not a tech company. Perhaps it was because Oluwafemi who is incredibly charismatic and breaks many of the stereotypes around tech enthusiasts became the de-facto avatar for the Nigerian tech scene, or because Big Cabal wasn’t showy about its interests, but that misconception persisted. So when in mid 2015 Zikoko mag was launched anonymously via Twitter and Facebook few people made the association. At that time, PartyJollof was also launched anonymously, carping on the universal popularity of Nigerian dish Jollof Rice and the emotions associated with it.

The relative anonymity of both sites allowed them be assessed without bias to their owners, though Oluwafemi and Seyi Taylor leveraged their reach as influencers to promote posts from the site. By September Zikoko posts were gaining regular traction on Twitter and starting conversations. PartyJollof was stirring talk too, particularly who was the behind the site’s often wildly varied content, especially how it tackled religion with humor. Nigerians flocked to these sites for their humor, delivered daily without any requests of commitment from the reader and a promise of relatable content. It seemed like this was the first time humor was really gaining traction as  but this was only a second, money backed wave.

2010 was a golden year for amateur blogging in Nigeria, a good number of established and emerging fiction and non-fiction writers who came into their own in 2016 started blogs in 2010. There was also a proliferation of comic writers who employed fun and dark humor to entertain and titillate. Inspired by Nolan’s Dark Knight and Ledger’s Joker, these comic poets deconstructed fairy tales and pop culture, wrote their friends and enemies into their stories, explored the reality of being a millennial Nigerian. The humor wave culminated with The Sarcastic Centre in 2013, a final push by some humor bloggers to monetize the format. It didn’t quite catch on and the people behind it drifted to other interests. Few of the blogs from that era survive and some of the writers from that era including Justin Irabor’s Obaranda, Terdoo Bendega and Kelvin Rounds continue to honor that legacy.

What made the second wave different was that these new humor sites came out of the hatch backed by money. Big Cabal hired Dami Odufuwa and Daniel Orubo to handle creating a precarious blend of specific to Nigeria to but relatable across Africa content and PartyJollof after a short hiatus became part of Redux Digital, a new media company launching with verticals in music, fashion and what they called ‘life’. That led to Chude Jideonwo of YNaija being revealed as the muscle behind PartyJollof’s first incarnation as well as a guiding force in its second. As Oluwafemi and Taylor were former associates of Jideonwo, the PartyJollof site was immediately pitted against Zikoko as a rival. Those who were so bold called it a Zikoko clone. But what both sites really were, were experimental clones of the Buzzfeed model.

Buzzfeed is universal. Jonah Peretti, former teacher and creator of Buzzfeed got his start in Media at the Huffington Post and started his site as a viral lab, with the singular intention of tracking how stories, videos and photos online become viral and how to replicate this phenomenon. He needed a tool to test his theories with, and his media company came to be as a result of that. While Buzzfeed’s credibility as a media source has waned and risen periodically over the decade in which it has been in operations, its popularity has remained unrivalled with the company reaching 6 billion views per month on its written, pictorial and video content and 80 million consistent readers. A staggering number of eyeballs. Peretti managed this through a simple philosophy; universality.

Buzzfeed harnessed the internet and the inexhaustible amount of data it offers, directly and inadvertently, on its users. Through a system called Hive, cobbled out of acquired and in-house data mining and analysis technologies, Buzzfeed feeds all its content, from inane cat videos to long-form investigative articles on the CIA into the Hive and uses the feedback from them to streamline its future content. All with the single objective that the consumers of this content identify so strongly with whatever is given that they not only consume it properly and relate to its message, they also take ownership of it by sharing to their own personal circles. And this ‘shareability’, not the cat videos or the listicles is what Zikoko and PartyJollof tried to clone in Africa.

And it worked, in vastly different ways. In January 2016 the relative anonymity under which Zikoko had operated was lifted and the staff writers were encouraged to take ownership of the content they created. PartyJollof operated this way right off the launch pad. Allowing them put their names behind their work turned Orubo and Fu’ad Lawal, writers for Zikoko and PartyJollof respectively, into social media superstars as some of their articles attained cross demographic virality. The content on both sites went from neutral humor to satire, tackling the national issues that 2016, a particularly difficult year for Nigeria brought to the fore. Zikoko and PartyJollof had morphed from verticals to important conversation starters. And not long after Ghanaian owned media company OMG Voice’s Nigerian vertical began to gain some traction too. And the international press started to notice too.

The international press were the first to say out loud what everyone already knew, the Buzzfeed model was working in Nigeria. Between the three sites monthly views were in the hundreds of thousands and the digital media conversation around the sites were unrelenting. But perhaps, the attention was as much a sword as it was a salve. In the months following, PartyJollof went into hibernation, its writers drifting to other media groups. Zikoko also had a writer haemorrhage, losing Odufuwa, Orubo to French newcomer Konbini and Odun Oweniyi to personal interests. Zikoko turned its sights to video and PartyJollof doubled down and is in the throes of a third incarnation, morphing into a proper lifestyle rag.

The year of the Buzzfeed Clones was only a natural progression after a year where young Nigerians ousted a president and instated a new one democratically. As a demographic, the millennial Nigerian really came into their own, and the Buzzfeed Clones were their zeitgeist, helping them relive the peculiarities of their childhoods, voicing their frustrations, celebrating their idiosyncrasies. Zikoko, PartyJollof and OMG Voice became the voice of a generation because people of that generation for the first time were given permission to document their experiences under the foil of humour, to validate their fears, to speak into the void and hear it respond. It has also proven this time around, profitable too.

In 2017 there will be many clones of the Buzzfeed Clones, trying to replicate the reach these sites had in 2016, the zeitgeist they started. And if that keeps young people in positions where their voices will be heard, it will be a good thing.

See other stories from the #InnovationSeries below:

– New Establishment: Mr. Eazi, Ire Aderinokun, Arese Ugwu, and more… Meet the class of 2017


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