Mark Zuckerberg recently renounced Facebook’s famous motto “move fast and break things” which it is said once plastered their office walls. Facebook’s early philosophy was a fearless willingness to make mistakes. It needed to be brave, innovative, and above all else, ruthless, to surpass its competition. We forget it was not the first social network, but it very quickly became the best. The interface was sleek, uniform and minimal, yet allowed users to make their pages highly personalised. It was about you. Facebook elevated the user, created an interactive community, whilst at the same time ensuring its own brand remained restrained and dependable: a facilitator, rather than the centre of attention.
Now, arguably, it is all about Facebook. Earlier and once larger competitors such as Friendster and MySpace are now forgotten. Facebook reigns and there is no one left to surpass. Today it boasts 1.5 billion active monthly users and 1 billion daily users on its mobile site. Instagram, probably its largest competitor, is owned by Facebook. Hence, the company motto is now the more conservative, and less memorable, “move fast with stable infrastructure.”
The Lad Bible owes much of its success to this infrastructure. It is only four years old and like a younger Facebook has adopted the move-fast-and break-things philosophy: Lads magazines FHM and Zoo this month announced their closures, joining the equally unprofitable Loaded and Nuts. All cited their audiences moving to online sites such as The Lad Bible.
The website was founded by Alex Partridge in 2011, who soon sold it, going on to found the nearly as popular Unilad. Now run by Arian Kalantari and Alexander Solomou, in a short time the website has grown to become the 12th most visited in the UK. It is more popular than Instagram, The Daily Mail, Buzzfeed, and The Guardian, and the only news website above it (if you can call The Lad Bible a news website) is the BBC. In Ireland, it is the 14th most popular, ahead of all the above (including the BBC) as well as the Independent and The Irish Times. More astonishing still is the popularity the website has had through Facebook, and particularly through video. The Wall Street Journal reported that in April of this year The Lad Bible was the largest producer worldwide of video content on Facebook in terms of raw views. In a single month, it received 1.6 billion views, aided greatly by Facebook’s auto-play function.
Despite this reach, and an advertising revenue of over £100,000 per month, The Lad Bible has not attracted investors in the same way as other young online-only publications such as Buzzfeed and Mashable. The brand is damaged from a history of misogyny, and to many these tendencies are still present, if slightly more latent. A recent picture-heavy story was titled, “Former drug cartel leader and detective have posed naked to promote peace in Colombia.” Another pictured a women relegated to the back seat of a car with a takeaway occupying the passenger seat. Laura Bates of the site Everyday Sexism called The Lad Bible representative of “a culture of misogyny sickeningly disguised as banter.”
Redefining the lad
The Lad Bible is attempting to become a more respectable venture, so it is these associations it says it wants to distance itself from. As a case in point, the controversial #CleavageThursday has been scrapped. Moreover, Mimi Turner, the marketing director for The Lad Bible’s publisher, 65twenty, says that in the last six months the proportion of female readers has increased from 20% to 27%. “When people say ‘what’s a lad?’, a quarter of lads are actually women.” However, Turner does not concede that the editorial decision to discontinue #CleavageThursday was taken out of any obligation to the growing number of female lads, but rather because “those things are just not funny and clever enough to meet the content standards for what we need.”
Above all else The Lad Bible sees itself as fundamental in the evolution of the lad: “Magazines were of their time but this is just much bigger and I think it absolutely redefines what lads are,” says Turner. Yet, it’s not immediately clear what that redefinition is. A visit to the Facebook page today will tell you that this community – and they are very keen to emphasise this is a community – hold an unapologetic reverence for many subjects: Jennifer Aniston, British exceptionalism, military and security forces, computer game nostalgia, large sandwiches and Jeremy Clarkson. None of this seems particularly radical, and yet The Lad Bible continues to grow at an incredible rate.
Nor has the process of generating content changed very much in the lifetime of the site. A sense of community is so important because the content is entirely user generated. The Lad Bible’s office receives over 1,000 submission a day, and a team of editors will sift through to find the most appropriate. It is almost a cross between social media and traditional journalism in relying on the public to capture images and video, combined with a selective editorial team. The model began as, and still is, a kind of online You’ve Been Framed.
If there is any selection criteria, it is that successful submissions must be instrumental: they are intended to make you snigger, swell with pride or revulsion, shake your head in disbelief, empathise, and, ultimately, want to share it with friends. But something connects all of these reactions: each must happen immediately. If there is a point to a caption or a video, it has to be made quickly. The Lad Bible gets to the point quickly, and finishes the point quickly. An example might be a recent video: “Crow Takes a Ride on A Window Wiper.” Not only is it short, unexpected and funny, it is also immediately understandable. The Lad Bible would scoff at Brian Friel’s insistence that “confusion is not an ignoble condition.” Wherever there is a revelation, or surprise, or message to a post, it is not difficult to grasp, and when it is grasped, it generally does not prompt further thought. There is no appreciation for context, complexity or nuance. The content offers a path of least resistance; there is almost an encouragement for the brain to move on rather than ponder.
Refuge from nuance
Still, once more, none of this unique. This disposability of short and satisfyingly concluded narratives is not unique to The Lad Bible, although it is very good at it. It is a technique used by many websites with a revenue reliant on advertising per page view. You see, understand, react, and you move on. An objection is that attention spans are shortening, and sustained communication is disappearing with such a bite-sized online discourse. However, such exclamations tend to overstate the point. If there is a desire to convey a message succinctly, new and expanding forms such a memes, vines, and GIFs will only facilitate that. The Lad Bible may be moving quickly, but it is not breaking everything.
At its root, the site’s huge popularity relies on that burst of satisfaction from understanding something quickly and easily. Indeed, satisfaction is the theme of a number of recent pictures posted to the Facebook page: A vacuum cleaner fits snugly between two skirting boards, and logs of timber fit together neatly like a jigsaw on the back of a truck. The Lad Bible has become a refuge from a messy and difficult world. Only here does everything fit together satisfyingly like a jigsaw. The Lad Bible community member is not asked to think or engage, but wallow in their own understanding.
We remember this is a Bible. And yet, the objects of devotion here are the followers of The Lad Bible themselves. Much like Facebook, it is a model based on elevating the user, or as CEO Arian Kalantari puts it: “an uplifting approach. We like to glorify anyone from our community.”
If a short clip of a crow on a windscreen wiper fails to provide sustained critical engagement, but instead a short and perishable interest, the effect is relatively harmless. More accurately, it’s appropriate. Where The Lad Bible is radical, where it is perhaps redefining the lad, as it claims to do, is by expanding this short and perishable interest into more serious territory.
The site recently posted footage of Russian forces firing cruise missiles at ISIS targets. It provided breaking news during the mass shootings in Paris on 13 November. A high percentage of anyone under 30 will be aware of this. Here a model built on elevating the reader’s sense of their own understanding at the expense of nuance and complexity, on providing quick, easy, and fragmented narratives, reveals its limitations. More balanced and less instrumental reporting is by contrast remarkable because it is so often unsatisfying. Brief moments of discovery amongst an unhappy confusion is the pervading condition. Above all, when a partial understanding is won, it is much harder to dispose of.
For now, to stand still and listen may be a better motto for The Lad Bible.