It is, in retrospect, one of the most deranged blog posts of the decade. In recent years, BuzzFeed has struggled to become a sustainable company, let alone a successful one. Spurred on by early investors to go public in 2021, as of this writing the company’s shares are trading at 68 cents a share; On Thursday, founder Jonah Peretti announced the company would shut down BuzzFeed News, its Pulitzer Prize-winning hardcore journalism division, and lay off all of its employees. If in 2015 BuzzFeed could claim to be the future of the media business, in 2023 it can barely claim to be the present.
But we can’t blame the person who sent the Awl email for his lack of foresight; they weren’t the only deluded people working in the media at the time. Ben Smith’s new book, Traffic, a history of the viral 2010s seen through the rise and fall of BuzzFeed (his former employer; was the founding editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News) and his former rival Gawker ( where I worked from 2010 to 2015), is subtitled Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral, and I can confirm: there is a lot of disappointment in this book. There is also some rivalry. But I have to be honest. I don’t think there are geniuses.
(I include myself among those non-geniuses: I was one of the former employees Smith interviewed while reporting on the book, and he thanks me in the acknowledgments.)
If you were alive and online in the 2010s, you’re probably already familiar with these two sites, especially BuzzFeed, whose strangely addictive quizzes and lobotomized mirth have been inevitable on America’s Facebook feeds for half a decade. Gawker never achieved the same popular ubiquity as BuzzFeed, but, characteristically, had a far more dramatic and memorable collapse: He was sued for bankruptcy by Hulk Hogan, whose legal battle the BuzzFeed board member was secretly funding. Facebook Peter Thiel.
At least in the abstract, these two editorial realities and above all their founders, Peretti and, in Gawker’s case, the former Financial Times Journalist and tech-industry geek Nick Denton creates a fascinating pair of opposites: Denton, a hostile, status-obsessed Brit, oversaw a blogging empire with a reputation (not always deserved) for casual cruelty and venomous wit; Peretti, a shy Californian, has built a website characterized by an inhuman cheerfulness and an absence of both venom and wit. For at least some of the writers who worked under them, especially at Gawker, this was not just a commercial rivalry but an ideological battle: irony versus seriousness, criticism versus civility, sarcasm versus smarm.
But the rivalry and intensity of sentiment that engendered both it and the anonymous letter to the Awl never really come alive on the page. Perhaps this is a function of Smith’s pure, flowing corporate prose, or the overfamiliarity of the stories Traffic tells. (Both sites were widely covered and mythologized, not least by Gawker herself, which, whatever else it might have been, was also a running account of the internal chaos the company seemed to constantly generate.)
Maybe it’s that Denton and Peretti themselves are too weird and reptilian to be effective or sympathetic avatars for opposing camps. As a former employee of Dentons, I was shocked to read that Smith described him as charismatic and having high-level social skills, until I realized this was related to Peretti, who looked at behavior the way linguist Noam Chomsky does. looked at the language.
But I suspect the real problem is that since 2023, less than a decade into the golden age of viral traffic for digital publishers, the race to go viral seems pathetic at best, a brief, extravagant interregnum between periods of prolonged domination by large national companies. news publishers, at worst a pointless waste of journalistic creativity and resources spent pursuing a doomed corporate strategy. Of the many delusions in the book, the grandest is the idea that digital publishers can build sustainable businesses by chasing huge audiences with free content.
The central question Smith asks is whether viral trafficking is an art (a view he attributes to Denton) or a science (Peretti’s theory). But it’s hard to be particularly interested in this question once Facebook enters the picture and it becomes clear that traffic was, more than anything, a matter of having Mark Zuckerberg’s email. Peretti wrote frequently with Zuckerberg and made a habit of nurturing the upper-middle-level Facebook employees who ran its core product, News Feed, which meant he had a say in the sorting mechanisms that could give publishers amounts of life-changing traffic.
When, in 2013, media start-up Upworthy was threatening BuzzFeed’s dominance with its gap-trivia (aka clickbait) headlines, Peretti simply emailed a News Feed engineer to explain because he thought stories with Upworthy-style headlines were bad for Facebook, and forwarded the email correspondence to Smith, then to BuzzFeed News, writing: It’s really fun collaborating with the Facebook team on how News Feed should work. Trivia gap Stories were soon taken down by Facebook.
The problem is when they no longer want to cooperate with you. Peretti still appears to have close ties with Facebook, but the platform has moved on from years where he was happy to boost publisher page views by tweaking his news feed. (Peretti attributes this change in attitude to the unprecedented viral success of The Dress, a photo that different viewers saw in different colors. Peretti believes the meme scared off Facebook executives, who were wary of losing control. Smith writes: The Dress itself was harmless, but the next meme to colonize the entire platform within minutes might not be.)
BuzzFeed’s legacy, then, is not a fully formed science of virality, but a cautionary tale about over-reliance on traffic. In recent years, both established media companies like The New York Times and new media start-ups like Substack (where, full disclosure, I maintain a newsletter) have embraced subscriptions and paywalls as a more viable business proposition than traffic- tracking model that BuzzFeed and its many startups have adopted, with varying degrees of sophistication, in the 2010s.
Given this state of affairs, it’s hard not to think that Traffic is inadvertently but convincingly arguing that Gawker and BuzzFeed weren’t, in the grand scheme of things, particularly important. Smith acknowledges this possibility near the end when he mentions it Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, and he wonders if maybe Jonah and I, thinking of ourselves as protagonists, hadn’t gone through someone else’s story. (Perhaps Smith could have taken a lesson from Stoppard and made Traffic more of a comedy; it’s not like there’s no shortage of material.)
In the end, only one character in Traffic can truly be said to have a vision. In 2013, Disney CEO Bob Iger offered to buy BuzzFeed for $650 million. In the weirdest and funniest scene in the book, a nightmarish blunt rotation of Smith, Peretti, BuzzFeed video head Ze Frank, and BuzzFeed president Jon Steinberg get drunk on a hotel balcony in Los Angeles and discuss the offer. Frank and Smith urge an ambivalent Peretti to turn down the offer, fearing Disney’s corporate culture could stifle Buzzfeed’s creativity. Not so much Steinberg, the company’s money man, who kneels on the balcony to beg Jonah to accept the deal.
Frank and Smith would go on to win the argument; they and Peretti saw BuzzFeed’s monster traffic as the key to their dreams of a burgeoning independent media empire. As we now know, they were wrong. Steinberg is far from a genius after he left BuzzFeed, joined the US operation of the Daily Mail and then founded CNBC’s cosmically annoying brand Cheddar for millennials, videos of which can be found on gas pumps of the whole country, but he alone got to see it trafficked for what it really was: the pumping stage of a pump-and-dump scheme Peretti never had the vision to complete.
Max Read is the former editor of Gawker and the current editor of Read Max, a newsletter about the future.
Genius, rivalry and disappointment in the billion-dollar race to go viral
Penguin Press. 343 pages $30
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