Last week, BuzzFeed announced plans to lay off 15 percent of its employees. About 200 people were made redundant in the company’s US and international offices. The announcement coincided with massive downsizing at the Huffington Post (which laid off 7 percent of its staff) and media company Gannett, which owns USA Today as well as numerous local newspapers such as the Indianapolis Star and the Arizona Republic. The cuts in both digital and print newsrooms have generated much conversation online about everything we already knew: that times are changing, that the contemporary publishing economy isn’t working and that journalists and readers alike are left behind.
BuzzFeed, founded in 2006 by Jonah Peretti, has long confounded legacy media outlets. Its combination of baby animals and reporting, quizzes and advertising dollars, set it up as the digital-native media company that figured out the internet and outpaced legacy publication models. The New York Times, in its innovation report – an in-house research project that was leaked in March 2014 and has become a foundational document in the understanding of how print media see the challenges of going digital – wrote extensively about BuzzFeed. The report sees BuzzFeed as a direct competitor, but one that echoes the famous description in the New York Times of USA Today when it began – that it was ‘loudly mocked and quietly mimicked.’ From the report:
Because we are journalists, we tend to look at our competitors through the lens of content rather than strategy. But BuzzFeed, Huffington Post and USA Today are not succeeding simply because of lists, quizzes, celebrity photos and sports coverage. They are succeeding because of their sophisticated social, search and community-building tools and strategies, and often in spite of their content.
‘In spite of their content’ is a telling line in the treatment of BuzzFeed. The layoffs especially affect BuzzFeed News: the company disbanded the entire national news desk, as well as most of its national security team. In a recent review of former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson’s forthcoming book, Merchants of Truth (2019), Nicholas Thompson (editor of Conde Nast-owned tech magazine Wired) wrote that BuzzFeed News was a money-losing endeavor. It started, ‘Abramson writes, as a way to create cachet for the money-winning side of his empire. The result is roughly similar to McDonald’s including slices of apples in Happy Meals.’ This echoes often-made distinctions between BuzzFeed News and BuzzFeed itself: BuzzFeed News is often described as this serious enterprise while BuzzFeed was the realm of kittens, listicles and other miscellanea. It’s an easy position that disregards the nuances of online reading, overlooking a complex way of thinking about the relationship between image, text and distribution online.
‘We think humans are complex people,’ who care about different things, Peretti explained in 2012, in a short interview with Adrienne LaFrance at Nieman Lab, an online publication by the Nieman Foundation for the research of journalism at Harvard University. As in readers’ social media feeds, in BuzzFeed both ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ stories are placed side by side. Peretti’s division of stories by weight also shows how much space there was at BuzzFeed to try something that could stretch the binaries between significant reporting and cat videos. On the top, right-hand side of BuzzFeed’s homepage (which few people ever visit, since most of the site’s traffic originates from social media links) are five small, circular stickers reading ‘LOL,’ ‘wtf,’ ‘omg,’ ‘cute’ and one with a red arrow pointing upward: ‘trending.’ It’s not a very rigid classification system, but it’s the space of light-heartedness that made BuzzFeed’s name, what Thompson saw as the apple slices in the Happy Meal.
On Twitter, BuzzFeed’s tech reporter Katie Notopoulos wrote, ‘Forgive me for being weepy but I want to talk about what BuzzFeed layoffs mean not just to ~the state of journalism~ but to the internet at large. A bunch of people were laid off (and more to come! Fuck!) who quite literally created and shaped the internet as we know it today.’ She’s not being sentimental or weepy; she then enumerates a small collection of BuzzFeed-generated novelties thought up by a team of people who were trying stuff out: quizzes, click-lust and cats, but also cooking videos with just an overhead view of hands and an attempt (this was new to me) to convince all photo editors across BuzzFeed to clear copyright for the images they use.
Notopoulos, who covered digital culture as a freelancer before she joined BuzzFeed, concludes her thread saying that BuzzFeed changed the internet ‘because of an accidental assemblage of weird geniuses.’ It changed the internet because it allowed these reporters, many of them young, to try things out. There wasn’t an established, magazine voice that writers had to hit, or a specific audience to reach. Rather, every story, from the feel-good listicle to the longform personal essay, had to find its own audience. BuzzFeed did not have a single core demographic – not even millennials. At peak BuzzFeed, sometime between exploding a watermelon on Facebook Live (I’ll get back to this) and the striped-dress optical illusion, the media company has not only nailed viral content – by tapping into communities like ‘people who grew up in Michigan in the 90s’. It also defined a sense of digital attention. The uplifting content featuring a mix of celeb and pop culture, puppies that will help you get over the Mondays, news reporting, quizzes, and advertorials defined a certain positivity that exists across the platforms we use. Facebook rolled out ‘reactions’ (the heart, sad-face emoji, angry face and so on) in 2017, allowing users access to more responses than ‘like.’ The autoresponses suggested by my Gmail are pretty much always ‘Yes,’ ‘would love to’ and ‘sure thing!’ The intense, positive normativity introduced by autocorrect, reactions, and suggested responses is so common today that it’s hard to remember a time when it was new.
But it was. Facebook was founded in 2004, BuzzFeed in 2006. In a way, the two sites are deeply related, and the fall of one may be the demise of the other. BuzzFeed cozied up with Facebook to a remarkable degree. BuzzFeed always understood internet distribution. It uses its homepage to experiment with storytelling, posting the same story numerous times with different leads, images, or title to see which may take off. But its writers, editors and data analysts realized how to move stories across the network specifically, and most successfully, on Facebook. More than any other social media platform, Facebook allowed for BuzzFeed’s experiment in virality to flourish: Instagram doesn’t allow to share links beyond the bio; Twitter feels more professional; WhatsApp messages don’t reach far. And Facebook recognized that knowledge. When it launched its Live function, Facebook paid BuzzFeed as a media partner to produce content for it. The result? On a Friday afternoon in April 2016, BuzzFeed reporters exploded a watermelon by putting rubber bands around it, one by one, broadcasting it live on Facebook. It took about 45 minutes and at certain moments attracted over 800,000 viewers. In a report on a previous jokey experiment with Facebook Live at the BuzzFeed offices (in which staffers released four baby goats in their boss’s office), Shan Wang writes for Nieman Lab: ‘Five of us waited for the grand climax, baffled by our own interest, along with 81,000 other viewers.’
I googled ‘BuzzFeed baby goats’ to find video documentation of the prank only to realize BuzzFeed has a ‘goats’ tag and has published dozens of articles about baby goats. The baffling interest? None of us knew that we would be so curious to see someone’s response to baby goats, or to know how long it takes to explode a watermelon. But then, we are a captive audience: we’re always online.
In the mid-1990s, it was assumed that the nascent internet, in the words of web pioneer Kevin Kelly, would be, ‘[b]asically, TV that worked. The question was who would program the box.’ BuzzFeed found a perfect solution: both the distraction that the light-hearted – baby goats! – content generated from a browser life of work and shopping, as well as the community generating content and income at once. Users shared BuzzFeed articles, enhancing the company’s reach, and created (then shared) quizzes and listicles under the BuzzFeed Community umbrella – so much so that Matthew Perpetua, BuzzFeed’s director of quizzes, was also laid off last week, since a large proportion of traffic to the site came from amateur quizzes. The company is still inventing new formats. With AM2DM BuzzFeed updated the morning show format, which is aired on – and underwritten by – Twitter, and Netflix produces the weekly documentary series on digital culture ‘Follow This.’ The relationships with Twitter and Netflix bring up the simple question: Does BuzzFeed never learn, or was it always a follower of those who were on top?
Looking at what BuzzFeed was, and how it reflected a specific moment in digital publishing and its (still inextricable) relationship to data-driven advertising, I keep thinking of a photo taken in 2016 of Peretti, standing in a spacious, empty New York office space. BuzzFeed was expanding: hiring, growing BuzzFeed News, growing up. The walls and ceilings are stripped, the columns are tagged with paint, daylight pours in from the windows. A new beginning, an image of promise, growth, the kind associated with startups. It is the photo used to accompany the New York Times story about the layoffs. The caption reads, ‘Jonah Peretti, the chief executive of BuzzFeed, in 2016 in what was to become the publisher’s new expanded newsroom in New York’. Again, the stripped walls, the electric cables lying on the ground: it looks like ruins.
Main image: Los Angeles headquarters of BuzzFeed, 2013. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Jay L. Clendenin