Just over a year ago, Huffington Post senior staff writer Todd Van Luling embarked upon what he called “the single most important investigative quest in my long career as an Internet content creator”. This tenacious inquiry, which would involve dozens of phone calls, emails, Facebook messages, interviews with key eyewitnesses and deep dives into the online archive, had one vital goal: finding the actor who played Ugly Naked Guy on the TV series Friends.

Van Luling archly calls himself a “content creator” because he’s well aware that what he and The Huffington Post do isn’t journalism. Similarly, in Fairfax Media’s 2015 annual report, its CEO Greg Hywood doesn’t describe the work his “people” do as journalism, but rather as “using the modern tools of media to drive audience engagement and commercial success”.

The low-stakes pop-culture quest is a media subgenre that could only have arisen under such industrial conditions. It’s the weird and unholy result when traditional investigative journalism skills (archival research, data analysis, interviewing, problem-solving) and cultural criticism skills (close reading, contextualising, categorisation, theory) are put to use in the online content mines.

Rather than discovering something of public interest or intellectual insight, pop-culture quests dredge up banal, ephemeral moments. They don’t examine new things; they nostalgically rake over stuff we enjoyed but have since forgotten. Best of all, other online content mines can then report these findings as news.

Embedded in the pop-culture quest is a certain facetious pedantry: a weaponised idle curiosity. For instance, in 2011, sports writer Larry Granillo obsessively combed baseball statistics to determine that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off occurred on June 5, 1985. And in 2012, blogger Donovan Strain cross-referenced culture, weather, sport and technology information to identify January 20, 1992 as the day described in Ice Cube’s song It Was A Good Day.

Both these “days”, by the way, have since become incorporated into the online content calendar of obscure pop-culture holidays. On January 20, 2014, Ice Cube himself appeared in a Goodyear promotion for charity. (As the song goes: “Even saw the lights of the Goodyear Blimp/And it read, ‘Ice Cube’s a pimp’.”)

The pop-culture quest also excavates internet history. Last August, BuzzFeed’s Mark Di Stefano won much kudos for using Twitter crowdsourcing to identify the creator of a popular Australian meme in which former prime minister John Howard is depicted as a DJ. Similarly, in October 2015 Vanity Fair’s Darryn King interviewed Maggie Goldenberger, better known as the “Ermahgerd Girl“. And in March this year, James McCann of Adelaide street press Rip It Up secured an exclusive with the Clipsal 500 attendee whose photograph had been shared on Twitter as he attempted to souvenir a broken race car bumper.

I don’t want to ridicule the people who write such articles, because I’m one of them. There are so many trained journalists and cultural critics who are scrambling to make a living from their skills in a hostile market. In journalism generally, and cultural journalism specifically, staff writers and critics are getting sacked. Then they must compete for fewer, badly paid opportunities within a pool of freelancers that’s continually swelled by new graduates, parents working part-time, semi-retirees, skint authors and other supplicants.

Throughout this flux, the media industry doggedly clings to its professional myths that it holds governments and institutions to account, and uncovers crime, corruption and abuses of power. Investigative work is valorised at J-schools, in industry awards, and in the impassioned arguments for “quality journalism” that always greet each announcement of editorial layoffs. (Audaciously, The Conversation editor Andrew Jaspan claimed in February that his “global newsroom” of “academic specialist authors” remains a bastion of journalistic quality, when the vast bulk of Conversation contributors are not journalists and are not paid.)

The romantic figure of the investigative reporter has retreated into the realm of pop culture, alongside the private dick, the spy and the undercover cop. Fictional investigative journalism stories are power fantasies aimed at journos themselves — the newest of which is Secret City, Foxtel’s new political thriller series, based on crime novels by journalists Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis.

Similar fantasies of political relevance and professional agency abound in House of Cards, Deadline Gallipoli, The Code, State of Play and other TV dramas — not to mention a big-screen tradition stretching from the recent Money Monster and Spotlight all the way back to All the President’s Men and Deadline USA. As Variety TV critic Brian Lowry observed in 2013, such fictional heroism represents “an oddly dated framework at a moment when investigative endeavors have dwindled and many in the field are understandably preoccupied with merely saving themselves”.

Fairfax is only holding onto its star investigators because they are recognisable talismans of quality. As Jonathan Holmes observed in March (before Fairfax axed his column in the name of budget-trimming), quality journalism “isn’t what pulls in the massive digital audience that Hywood’s business model depends on. It’s the froth and bubble that the modern, digital, mobile audiences go for”.

What if the pop-culture quest is the online content creator’s bid for professional gravitas amid the froth and bubble? I’ve never felt more actively engaged in my work — more journalisty! — than when I could apply my skills and judgement to a process of discovery, writing stock phrases like, “[Publication] can reveal” and “[Source] did not respond before deadline”.

For me, the least satisfying pop-culture quest is Josh Baines’ Vice feature “I Tried To Track Down The Cast of ‘Call On Me’, The Sexiest Music Video of All Time“. As an investigation, it’s desultory and incompetent — Baines affects that his research trail has gone cold when a few online searches can easily unearth the people he’s writing about. But this “quest” is really a “think piece” — an opportunity to wallow in a kind of elegiac, libidinal yearning about “the pure potency of flesh on screen” and “our inherently scopophilic relationship to video as a medium”.

Pop-culture quests aren’t really about discovering information. In today’s diffuse, polarised media landscape, the commercially valuable commodity is emotion. You want to make audiences feel, then recruit others to feel the same way. And this feeling is the pleasure of rediscovery. Remember this? Whatever happened to that? We found it! We tracked it down! We made sense of it! Now you can too! And so can all your friends!

It’s terrible that the “news” industry should excavate old trivia when there are so many untold stories and new cultural shifts. And it’s terrible that writers are fully aware of how trivial and ephemeral their labour is. But online content becomes “shareable” and “viral” because it enables a brief moment of cohesion, a sense of collective cultural experience. This is how we live now — and make our living. This is “audience engagement”.