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Which Online Pop Culture Quiz Are You?

Where did all these quizzes come from, and why won't they go away?

What picture would you build of me, solely from a list of my results in those Buzzfeed and Zimbio quizzes that have been flooding Facebook lately?

I am simultaneously Jon Snow and Tobias Fünke, Edward Scissorhands and the Count. I am Milhouse and Ted Chaough, Ron Weasley and Princess Leia, Janet Jackson and Patti Smith, Fantastic Mr Fox and Elaine Benes… whose spiritual home is Portland, Oregon.

Blessed with a certain pop-cultural literacy, you might be able to trace common threads of taste and disposition in these celebrities and fictional characters. But really, the ‘meaning’ of online quizzes lies in the interaction between me, the quiz, and the friends with whom I share my results.

And as any reader of Dolly or Girlfriend magazines will recall, silly quizzes are nothing new. What distinguishes this current flurry of online quiz sharing is that the evergreen human impulse for idle, vague self-discovery has become harnessed to ‘virality’: the raison d’être of online content farms.

Learn Something Mildly Insightful About Yourself

I began my 2014 quizzing journey on January 12, when I discovered that apparently my true age is 42 – which, while being discomfitingly old, is still the answer to life, the universe and everything. Then, five days later, I found out that my manifest destiny lay in Portland. Created January 16, ‘What City Should You Actually Live In?’ was the tipping point of the quizzing fad. With 20 million pageviews, it’s “one of our most viral posts of all time”, according to Buzzfeed’s managing editorial director, Summer Anne Burton.

From augury and astrology to phrenology and physiognomy, people have always sought to understand themselves by being sorted into ‘types’. But today’s online quiz is rooted in the psychological tests developed after World War I, which then filtered into the vernacular thanks to their use in magazine pop-psychology and in the education and human relations industries. Developed during WWII, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was based on Carl Jung’s 1921 book Psychological Types, and first published in 1962. It’s now such a pop-psychology truism that you can use your MBTI result to decide which Harry Potter character you are.

What makes quizzes viral is that by promising insights into the self, they feed into the broader performance of idealised selfhood we cultivate online. In Zimbio’s popular Star Wars quiz, Darth Vader and the Emperor were not very common results — but they were the most commonly shared.

I was happy to share that in Star Trek, I was Chekov. (“Always one of the smartest people in the room, your input is often not met with the universal praise you were expecting.”) And it gives me harmless joy to learn that from a roster of ’90s dreamboats, my perfect Valentine is Pacey Witter.

However, discovering What Career Should You Actually Have, I was annoyed to learn I am meant to be a professor – a career I rejected ten years ago. I was embarrassed to learn my ’90s alt-rock dude avatar is Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day. And my ultimate letdown came from the ‘Which Jane Austen Heroine Are You?’ quiz, which likened me to the insipid Fanny Price from Mansfield Park. (I am much more like Anne Elliot from Persuasion.)

The absurdity of a quiz’s ‘result’ becomes obvious when celebrities join in. I was quite pleased to find I’m Shirley Manson from Garbage, but when Manson did Buzzfeed’s ‘Which ’90s Alt-Rock Grrrl Are You?’ quiz, she didn’t get herself. Likewise, Lena Dunham went to find out which Girls character she was and got Marnie. And Seth Rogen discovered that of all the celebrities he should smoke weed with, he should smoke it alone.

It’s Not Meaningless If It Generates Mad Clixxx

In the same way that we now mock the hyperbolic headline-style of feelgood linkbait website Upworthy, it hasn’t taken long for us to ridicule online quizzes.

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The quizmasters see you hatin’, and they don’t care.

“Parody is the highest compliment,” says Zimbio, which proudly collected the various piss-takes of its Star Wars quiz. Meanwhile, Buzzfeed’s quizzes have become cynically aware of users’ self-aggrandising motives. Its Which Arbitrary Thing Are You? quiz “is kind of a joke about BuzzFeed quizzes,” says Burton. “That’s something we encourage and think is fun.”

In 2009 – if you can even remember back that far – there was a similar stupid quiz boom. But these quizzes were user-generated, via a Facebook app. My friend Ben quipped, “What’s next – ‘which poo are you?’” Because I love scatological humour, I obliged by making the quiz.

But the app I made it with is now broken. Mark Zuckerberg moves fast and breaks things; Facebook (and increasingly, Twitter, too) buys up and assimilates competing businesses — like WhatsApp, which was purchased by Zuckerberg for a cool $21 billion last week. Facebook’s user experience is homogenous and transactional: reacting to things and amplifying those reactions through sharing. I’m touched now to recall how Friendster, LiveJournal and MySpace users once tended to their profiles with custom design, multimedia and widgets drawn from a rich ecosystem of third-party developers. (Tumblr retains some of this creativity.)

If Facebook is like a village green, these earlier networks were like teenage bedrooms where you’d hold court with your friends. The quizzes shared there were more often personal and interpersonal than superficially pop-cultural. Your friends would read your answers and learn more about you, or see themselves reflected in your answers. By contrast, aligning yourself with pre-existing universes is the Facebook way.

Burton still sees Buzzfeed’s quizzes as “a way for people to identify and relate to others.” But, more importantly, they generate mad clixxx. At Forbes, Jordan Shapiro even suggests that we participate in this frivolous corporate information-gathering to distract ourselves from the way our online interactions are subject to invasive state surveillance, algorithmic profiling and corporate data-mining.

Entering A Fictional Universe

But quizzes also allow fans of a pop-cultural universe to playfully find their place within it. We do this anyway when we identify with particular characters in the stories we love, or when we reflect on their dilemmas: “What would I do?”

When a story world is sectarian and involves conflict between factions, then it heightens our enjoyment of that dramatic world to imagine which side of the fence we’d fall. Which Westerosi house would you pay allegiance to in the tangled world of Game of Thrones? And in which house would the Sorting Hat choose for you?

Speaking of the Sorting Hat, consider how many successful stories involve the actual act of putting their protagonists in categories. Katniss Everdeen is chosen for the Hunger Games as randomly as in an internet quiz; Harry Potter could as easily have been in Slytherin as in Gryffindor.

Veronica Roth’s novel Divergent – the film adaptation is in cinemas on April 10 – imagines a futuristic world completely organised by an ‘aptitude test’ people take at age 16. Depending on their responses, they join one of five societal factions: Abnegation, the self-effacing political and charitable class; Amity, the peaceful farmers; Candor, the truth-telling lawyers; Dauntless, the fearless security staff; Erudite, the intellectuals and inventors.

Of course, you can do the test – and fascinatingly, it’s structured almost exactly as the protagonist, Tris Prior, experiences it in the novel. But Tris doesn’t find easy answers: she discovers she could equally be in Abnegation, Erudite and Dauntless. She’s ‘Divergent’.

The story asks us to consider what’s better: a world ruled by arbitrary, overarching categories, or a world in which we learn the value of all people? Perhaps we should rethink whether to keep giving Buzzfeed, Facebook et al the ‘virality’ that builds their businesses, but adds little to our own lives.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She is the founding editor of online pop culture magazine The Enthusiast and author of the book Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at @incrediblemelk.