Rachel McMahon is a teen from Michigan you almost certainly haven’t heard of before this week. Her name appeared in a blog post from BuzzFeed’s former head of quizzes and games, Matthew Perpetua, where he noted that McMahon was the “second highest traffic driver worldwide” for the site’s quizzes. (Perpetua was one of several hundred people — 15 percent of the company — laid off from BuzzFeed this month.) McMahon has contributed hundreds of quizzes for free — BuzzFeed has for years allowed and encouraged so-called community users to submit quizzes without paying them — and says she never really had any idea how much traffic, and by extension revenue, she was bringing the company. Intelligencer caught up with McMahon to talk about her quiz prowess, her guilt over BuzzFeed staffers losing their jobs, and why Pop-Tarts plus Disney princes is a recipe for success on the internet.
Hi, Rachel. Thanks for talking with me today. I imagine this has been a wild 48 hours for you.
I’m a little overwhelmed. My notifications are going crazy right now.
So I guess my first question is are you actually a teen?
Yes, I’m actually 19. I’m a sophomore at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. It’s not that big of a school. I’m a communications major.
When did you start making quizzes?
I first started making quizzes during my high-school yearbook class. We had computers with us all the time and I would always get my deadlines done fast, so at free time me and my friend Katie would take quizzes. One day I actually realized anybody could make them and I thought that was pretty cool. I think my first quiz was in April 2017.
Do you remember what it was?
It was not good. I think it was something like “What Justin Bieber Album Are You?” It was weird and bad and it did not get any views at all. But I thought it was fun to make, so then I started making more. My first quiz that got promoted to the front page was at the end of April and I was super-excited to get the email telling me that it happened. After that, I just kept going at it.
So BuzzFeed notified you when you had a quiz on the front page. Did they give you any insights about your traffic?
You get an email, “This quiz was promoted to the front page.” They’ll also tell you if something is trending or not. If you go to your BuzzFeed account, there’s a dashboard and it shows you some of the viral trends and it also shows you your top posts in the last 30 days.
How many have you made?
High hundreds. I went went through all my quizzes and counted them. If I didn’t mess up, 692 is the total.
Do you know what your biggest hit was?
I’ve made so many that it’s hard to keep track. If I go to my account, it shows how many each have gotten. Here’s one with 578,000. One with 428,000; 499,000; 534,000.
What quiz is the 578,000 one?
[Clicking sounds.] See this one’s weird, but people like it. It’s “Which Pop-Tart Flavor Matches Your Personality Best?” It’s like the most random things, the little things that people really seem to like. That’s how I make my quizzes. I think of something random. Here’s another with 596,000. “Pick 12 Cupcakes and We’ll Give You a Disney Prince to Marry.” My highest was actually “Like or Pass on These Pop-Tart Flavors and We’ll Guess Your Relationship Status.” That has 851,000 views.
What do you think makes a good quiz?
I look at trends. Food has always been a big thing with people on BuzzFeed. The food quizzes. Or if there’s a TV show that’s trending. What really helped was when I got added to a BuzzFeed community Facebook page by BuzzFeed workers. They’d give us challenges. Like if it was near Christmas, they’d be like, “Oh it’s a Christmas challenge, make as many Christmas-related quizzes and post them in here and we’ll promote them.” The workers helped give me ideas on quizzes.
Is it fair to say BuzzFeed really encouraged you, as a community member, to contribute for free?
It always seemed to me that they wanted me to make quizzes, but now I’m getting responses [on Twitter] where people are saying I should have realized I was taking these people’s jobs. I never really got that vibe because they were telling us to make more quizzes.
You mentioned on Twitter that you feel bad and like you might have been a cause of the layoffs. I just want to tell you, and I know a lot of people on Twitter have been saying this too, that none of this is on you.
When I first read Matthew’s [Perpetua, formed head of quizzes and games at BuzzFeed] blog post I thought, “I’m that Michigan teenager. I’m causing all this traffic.” I felt a lot of weight on me. Luckily, people have been reassuring me that it’s not my fault. I really felt like it was as I first learned about the layoffs. I felt really bad.
Was Matthew ever in that Facebook page you mentioned?
I don’t believe so. I never had contact with him, or even really heard of him, before the blog post. It was more of the smaller, BuzzFeed quiz-makers who would talk to us.
Did you ever have a moment where you realized how good you were at making quizzes and start to wonder if you shouldn’t be giving away your work for free?
I would always tell my friends and family about it and they’d always ask why they weren’t paying me. I understood that, but at the same time I felt like it was my choice to give out these quizzes. I knew that I wasn’t going to get paid. I think it would be nice, who wouldn’t want to get paid? It was always just a hobby. I used to do dance but when that ended this was just a new thing I picked up on.
I noticed your bio on BuzzFeed is “hire me.” Was that the end goal?When I first started in 2017 that was the bio I put up. I thought it was funny. I never thought of it seriously, but I had thought about maybe wanting to work for BuzzFeed. I talked to some of the staff in the Facebook page and they told me about internship opportunities, but at the time I was too young. I always thought a job at BuzzFeed would be fun, but with the recent layoffs, I don’t even know if they are looking for someone in that position. It seems like they are just going to rely on the community from now on.
In the past, websites like the Huffington Post have gotten called out for publishing writers without paying them. BuzzFeed never really seemed to face the same flak for the community quiz model. Why do you think that is?
I was reading about the Huffington Post stuff and I think it’s because quizzes seem like a game. They don’t seem serious or like work. I never really thought to ask for money, but seeing all these tweets saying I should have been paid has been eye-opening.
Right, you were driving significant traffic, and revenue, for the company. Did you ever have any idea that was the case?
I never knew I was the second-highest driver worldwide. I always knew my quizzes did well based on my dashboard views. Toward the end of the year, BuzzFeed actually sent me a package with some clothes and water bottles, a recipe book, and a coffee mug — BuzzFeed swag stuff, I think you can actually buy it online. They told me I was the number-one user this year with all my views. I didn’t know it was that big of a thing, though.
You published a quiz this week. Do you plan to continue making quizzes now that you’ve learned everything you learned?
I published the Jim Carrey one yesterday at noon, it was before I read the blog post and got all the notifications. I don’t really know what my next step is right now, but I’m definitely taking a break from making and posting the quizzes
I just feel so badly about the layoffs. It’s a lot. I didn’t realize anybody would really see my tweet.
I highly recommend liberally muting anybody making you feel bad. This is an industry-wide problem you didn’t cause.
I saw a tweet earlier saying they hoped the college student who caused people to get laid off gets “depression and stuff.” That’s not the nicest thing to read. I just hope now that my name is out there I can find a job. Maybe not at BuzzFeed, but still a job.