A Complete Taxonomy of Internet Chum

by John Mahoney

This is a bucket of chum. Chum is decomposing fish matter that elicits a purely neurological brain stem response in its target consumer: larger fish, like sharks. It signals that they should let go, deploy their nictitating membranes, and chomp down blindly on a morsel of fragrant, life-giving sustenance. Perhaps in a frenzied manner.

This is a chumbox. It is a variation on the banner ad which takes the form of a grid of advertisements that sits at the bottom of a web page underneath the main content. It can be found on the sites of many leading publishers, including nymag.com, dailymail.co.uk, usatoday.com, and theawl.com (where it was “an experiment that has since ended.”)

The chumboxes were placed there by one of several chumvendors — Taboola, Outbrain, RevContent, Adblade, and my favorite, Content.ad — who design them to seamlessly slip into a particular design convention established early within the publishing web, a grid of links to appealing, perhaps-related content at the bottom of the content you intentionally came to consume. In return, publishers who deploy chumboxes receive money, traffic, or both. Typically, these publishers collect a percentage of the rates that the chumvendors charge advertisers to be placed inside the grids. These gains can be pocketed, or re-invested into purchasing the publisher’s own placements in similar grids on thousands of other sites amongst the chummy sea, reaping bulk traffic straight from the reeking depths of chumville.

Like everything else on the internet, traffic flowing through chumboxes must be tracked in order for everyone to be paid. Each box in the grid’s performance can be tracked both individually and in context of its neighbors. This allows them to be highly optimized; some chum is clearly better than others. As a byproduct of this optimization, an aesthetic has arisen. An effective chumbox clearly plays on reflex and the subconscious. The chumbox aesthetic broadcasts our most basic, libidinal, electrical desires back at us. And gets us to click.

Clicking on a chumlink — even one on the site of a relatively high-class chummer, like nymag.com — is a guaranteed way to find more, weirder, grosser chum. The boxes are daisy-chained together in an increasingly cynical, gross funnel; quickly, the open ocean becomes a sewer of chum.

Captured in situ on The Awl on April 20, 2015 at 12:10 pm.

Let’s look again at our first chumbox. It represents several powerfully recurrant chumbox aesthetic subsets.

Top left: Sexy Thing and Localized Rule. We won’t dwell on the efficacy of a Sexy Thing in advertising. But do note this Sexy Thing, enhanced with a chummy sprinkle of sinister context (crime? Young women in handcuffs?). Here the Sexy Thing is combined with a more digital-age enhancement, the Localized Rule. Scouring a visitor’s IP for its geographic location, anxiety can be created by informing you of a brand new reason to find yourself handcuffed in the back of a squad car in your neighborhood.

Top Middle: Old Person’s Face, Skin Thing, and Miracle Cure Thing. Often expressed individually, here we see Old Person’s Face and Skin Thing combined.

Top Right: Miracle Cure Thing. Also self-evident. But do note the subtle tactile neuron firings the image of the pile of salt on the hand elicits — the familiar signature of a Skin Thing.

Bottom Left: Deeply Psychological Body Thing: While on the surface this may scan as a Skin Thing, the regular pattern of indentations made in this woman’s legs by what appear to be frozen peas or stones are in fact designed to trigger feelings of mild discomfort/anxiety amongst sufferers of Trypophobia, a common sensitivity to regularly occurring patterns of holes in surfaces — a discomfort that perversely elicits curiosity, playing on our fixation with the frailties of our bodies and our ultimate fear of death.

Bottom Center: Celeb Thing: Enhanced by potential outing.

Bottom Right: Weird Tattoo (Fresher the Better) and Implied Vaginal or Other Bodily Opening: That the tattoo, another object of chumbox fascination, is placed in an area of extreme nerve sensitivity (the underarm) I can only assume is not at all coincidental.

Let’s move on, for there’s much more to explore.

Captured in situ on NaturalON on February 6, 2015

Top and Bottom Left: Skin Thing/Miracle Cure Thing

Top and Bottom Middle: Disgusting Invertebrates or Globular Masses Presented as Weird Food: Extremely common trope. Very often deployed along with headlines mentioning Diabetes or Testosterone, as seen here.

Top Right: A Pill. Pill imagery is a frequent recurring theme, befitting the chumbox’s tabloidish miracle cure leanings.

Bottom Right: Weight Loss Thing/Extreme Body. Yes, of course.

Captured in situ: “When Did The Art World Get So Conservative?” on New York Mag’s Vulture Blog, March 9, 2015.

Top Left: Deeply Psychological Body Thing. Summoning Freudian dreams of teeth turning to mush in your mouth, with a dash of the same phobic neuron tingle as frozen-pea-leg-indentation-lady. Again probably not coincidentally, both this and the frozen pea images can be found together on a BuzzFeed post on Trypophobia from 2013.

Middle Left: Despite its outwardly benign appearance, this is a clear Skin Thing.

Middle Right: Extreme Body. Both human and not.

Bottom Row: Note the links to the publisher’s own related content — an early chumbox selling point to sites too busted to drive their own coveted “recirculation” traffic. This is rarely seen in the chumboxes of today.

Captured in situ: “I put on a fat suit to understand what it’s like to be your mom” Clickhole (of course), March 6, 2015

Upper Left: Skin thing, Extreme Body

Upper Middle: Tattoo Thing (Fresher The Better), Skin Thing

Bottom Right: Money Thing

Bottom Left & Center: Celeb Thing

Upper Right: Wine. The only booze seen in chumboxes is wine for some reason.

Captured in situ: “Britain’s Oldest Surviving Human Brain Was Preserved In Mud For 2,600 Years,” IFLScience, March 6, 2015.

Upper left: Unfortunately I will file this under Sexy Thing. The sub-standard photo quality indicating a private smartphone shot taken by a public figure, display copy alluding to an investigation — when looking at chum, assume the basest human instincts are in play. It’s a scary place.

Upper Middle: Oozing Food/Egg. A trend without an immediately recognizable psychological precedent? Oozing eggs are extremely common, and are possibly deployed under similar principles as Disgusting Invertebrates or Globular Masses Presented as Weird Food. Or perhaps the resemblance to an oozing pustular sore brings us back into the familiar realm of the Skin Thing?

Bottom Middle: Sexy Thing (upskirt). See note on upper left.

Bottom Right: Skin Thing and Celebrity Thing.

Upper Right: Money Thing.

Captured in situ: “We Bow Down Before This Bus-Riding Scepter-Wielding Superhero” Gothamist, April 1, 2015

Upper Right/Left: It’s the Oozing Food/Egg, now in duplicate.

Lower Right: Implied Vaginal or Other Bodily Opening? My mind is going.

As a final exercise, follow me into the deepest depths. I don’t remember how many chumclicks it took to end up on slide number one of “30 Walmart Shoppers That Are Beyond Messed Up!” but this is what I found there:

Many sites at the end of the chain are composed of little more than chum. Here the traditional 2×3 or 3×3 grid gives way to something far more intensified. On a page like this, the conventions of the Chum Aesthetic are crystallized. I’ve gone ahead and assembled an ultimate chumbox from the choice pickings here.

Top Left and Middle: Two Oozing Foods/Eggs (???)

Top Right: Skin Thing, reinforced with the ultimate Freudian male nightmare, the shriveled dick.

Bottom Left: A subtly brilliant mix of an Old Person’s Face and a Money Thing in the display copy, contextualized with a secret of the Bible.

Bottom Middle: A Disgusting Invertebrate or Globular Mass Presented as Weird Food that I’ve actually never seen before.

Bottom Right: A combo Skin Thing and Deeply Psychological Body Thing (woman flayed alive).

That’s probably enough for one sitting. But ask yourself — when was the last time a piece of internet content asked you, “how well do you understand your subconscious mind” and truly meant it? In what other cultural medium can you find the deepest libidinal channels of the brain truly laid bare, with the quarterly pay-per-click revenue report to back them up? Have you lately exercised your deep-seated impulse to view an image of a weeping soft-cooked egg sitting on top of the pimple-encrusted face of Uma Thurman? What are you waiting for? Into the chumpools. The fetid ball of soggy electric fat at the other end of your clicking finger will thank you for the workout.

Photo by Jeremy Sternberg