The Internet is a wonderful tool that has changed the world in immeasurable fashion; its immense power is unparalleled, and yet it’s easy—so very, very easy—to get frustrated at how so many content creators online create clickbait items to lure in unsuspecting audiences to get pageviews and nothing more. (This article you’re reading, to be clear, will not be clickbait. Breathe easy.) Nowadays, one of the most common types of clickbait articles in the world of pop culture is specific to fan-created theorizing about various films or TV shows. Arguably, this first began when fans obsessed over genre shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files, but theorizing about the various potential meanings of minor Easter eggs has reached a fever pitch in the last 5 years, what with shows like Lost, Breaking Bad, and even Mad Men.
With Lost, at least, the feverish debate over what the Dharma Initiative or the Others or the Island itself were all about made sense. The show may have valued character over story in the end, but much of the bulk of the series was about the twisty nature of the world those characters inhabited. And Breaking Bad was filled with surprises and cliffhangers, so its rabid fans wondering if Walter White and Jesse Pinkman would get over on antagonists like Gus Fring and, by doing so, leaping to one conclusion or another also felt logical. (While Mad Men is an excellent TV series, people debating online about how the show’s final episodes will connect to Charles Manson seems particularly misguided and untethered to the show itself.) Of course, those shows are off the air, and Mad Men is nearing its conclusion, too. And so, some folks have turned their heads from television for endless theorizing; a few have, inexplicably, begun mining past Pixar films to start revealing supposedly hidden untruths.
The first, and most obvious, example of this came via The Huffington Post last week. The headline reads “Why ‘A113’ Is Planted in Nearly Every Pixar Movie.” Now, depending on who you are, you might see this headline and think, “Is this article secretly 15 years old?” Sadly, that’s not the case. The writer notes (with only a slight hint of sarcasm), “It was a mystery akin to Stonehenge or ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ but then, like all great puzzles, ‘A113’ was solved by Reddit users.” As some fans have noted, this writer included, there’s not a single word in that sentence that’s remotely true. You can read that quote and presume, not unreasonably, that the article’s writer is being tongue-in-cheek; while that may be true, the actual content of the HuffPo piece—which is literally five sentences, including the quote in this paragraph, and a slideshow—doesn’t acknowledge this indisputable fact: no one on Reddit “solved” the “mystery” of A113.
This site’s owner noted on Twitter over the weekend that a few friends have pointed him to this recent spate of clickbait, not sure if he was aware of this supposedly Jimmy Hoffa-level mystery, finally unearthed. With that anecdotal evidence in mind, it’s safe to acknowledge that not everyone knows or notices the A113 connection that appears in Pixar’s films as well as other Disney or Pixar-adjacent productions like The Princess and the Frog and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. However, there are vast, infinite warehouses of information that most of us aren’t aware of, information far more pressing than A113 (as well as information that’s equally as frivolous). When we are so inclined, this is when we go to places like the Internet for answers. And if you’re a person who doesn’t already know the origin of why the code A113–the number of a CalArts classroom–shows up as an Easter egg in various modern movies, you could take literally a minute out of your day and go to Wikipedia, where A113 has its own page. Here, you’ll see a quick explanation of what the code means, how often it’s shown up in popular culture, and why folks like Brad Bird are inspired to include it at all.
So which is worse: people who come up with these goofy non-factoids or the content creators who republish those bits and pieces of detritus and treat it like actual news? Consider, for a second, the all-encompassing Pixar Theory (or its theorist’s follow-up, in which he argues that Andy’s mother in the Toy Story films was once the original owner of the cowgirl doll Jessie). On one hand, we can debate the veracity of this theory and the logic therein. We could do the same for the new theories about Frozen and how it occupies the same universe as Tangled and The Little Mermaid, because of course. But on the other hand, it’s worth noting: how did the Pixar Theory come to appear on all sorts of clickbait-y websites, like The Huffington Post or Buzzfeed? Each of us—or, at least, most of us—probably has one goofy theory about one piece of popular culture, and we might have even shared it with friends or on a social network like Twitter. The issue, really, is not that someone on Reddit discovered what A113 means—and as some have noted, the actual Reddit thread utilized in the Huffington Post article echoes the idea that A113 is not a new mystery and its solution was revealed many years ago. The issue is that someone at The Huffington Post, and Today.com and io9 and The Daily Mail, thought the A113 connection was newsworthy.
Articles like these are why the phrase “slow news day” will never die. This is not a veiled way of suggesting that the news organizations breathlessly covering the A113 Easter egg should be devoting those resources more to issues of world affairs; there’s nothing wrong with focusing on the enjoyable and entertaining things in everyday life. But this is not news. When you read something like the A113 story, or anything else of its ilk, what you are learning is not new information about the subject of the article but information about the organization running that article. The Huffington Post thrives on pageviews and on a neverending barrage of content, whether it’s in written form, slideshows, GIFs, videos, or something else. So do any number of websites we visit on a daily basis. Some sections of The Huffington Post, or io9 or Buzzfeed or whatever, have value or feature stories of interest, in part because those stories either feature news or because they can accurately be described as “stories.”
However, those sections of these sites do not frequently offer the articles that make the largest waves on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and other such websites. For better or worse, an article that reveals one of the Biggest Mysteries EVER in the Pixar Universe is going to get more instant attention than a detailed discussion of any aspect of cinema that’s absent of GIFs or meme-worthy pictures. In a sense, the way in which some folks online have begun to treat Pixar’s films as if they were part of J.J. Abrams’ mystery-box style of storytelling is akin to passing around some hoax without realizing it’s not true. Let’s say a friend of yours at work points you, a Pixar junkie, to this Huffington Post piece or one like it. Do you let them down by telling them you’ve known about the A113 connection for years, and that the information’s been readily available for anyone to track down? Is there a way to pull back the curtain on this “mystery” gently? Is it better to stay silent and let others just assume they’ve stumbled upon one of the great untold discoveries of the Pixar mythology?
Perhaps that word, “mythology,” is the problem, precisely because Pixar does not have one. Some people would like that to not be true, hence theories that connect Boo from Monsters, Inc. to the old witch in Brave and on and on. Now that we’ve exhausted so many other mythology-heavy properties, people want to move on and turn something else into a source of debate and intense consideration, even when those pieces of entertainment aren’t actually interested in such theorizing. It’s happening now with the first half of the final season of Mad Men, and it happened a few months ago with True Detective; we graft extensively detailed mythologies onto whatever’s buzzworthy, and if that buzzworthy project doesn’t match our expectations, it fails. At least with Pixar films, people don’t have to worry about being disappointed; if you ascribe to the theory that Andy’s mom is Jessie’s original owner, Toy Story 2 doesn’t have to answer it one way or the other.
These days, that’s what pop-culture mythologizing amounts to: wanting to know answers to every question posed, directly or indirectly, by everything we digest via theaters and television. At least with the A113 “mystery,” there is an answer, albeit not one that’s going to make any of Pixar’s films become richer or more entertaining experiences. But there is a dread that’s associated with reading these non-stories and seeing them gain traction. One part of that dread connects to feeling like you’re watching everyone else catch up with something you’ve known for a long time, not realizing it was essentially a secret. The other part is in the fear that everything Pixar has made is up for grabs from such clickbait-hungry writers as well as theorizers. (Just wait: we’ll soon find out the Shocking Revelation Behind the Mystery of the Ubiquitous Pizza Planet Truck.)
Pixar’s films have, over the last 20 years, proven to be almost universally beloved and successful; the Internet, similarly, has risen in power and influence in that time. The latter’s users, however, are perhaps not as knowledgeable or educated on the ins and outs of Pixar as they could be. The only viable solution to this niggling issue is for places like The Huffington Post to look elsewhere for their insatiable hunger for content; thus, it’s almost certain that this solution won’t ever come to fruition. Even if The Huffington Post goes away, its values will remain somewhere online. For the dedicated Pixar junkie—and even the casual fan—who sees a headline about the unlocked A113 mystery and raises a quizzical eyebrow, the easiest solution is to do what the writers of these attention-grabbing articles aren’t doing: tell the truth. So when your friend breaks it to you that there’s a special code in Pixar movies, you might have to tell them they’ve been missing out on the fun for a long time, hard as it may be.