Buzzfeed Community, NPR Code Switch, and the Perils of Misattribution

Last night, while trying to track down links for a project, I discovered that NPR’s Code Switch had linked to my goofy BuzzFeed Community post about the mystery of butter cookie tins and sewing kits. In that post, I — with the help of my mother — go into the history of packaging and reuse, and suggest that this phenomenon was the result of wartime attitudes around reuse coupled with Royal Dansk’s innovation of decorative cookie tins (compared to boxes or loose bags).

I was pretty stoked to see them link to my post, but was a little dismayed that they chose to attribute the post to BuzzFeed, as though they had written it:

BuzzFeed Community is an entirely user-generated subsite of BuzzFeed where readers can create BuzzFeed-style posts for potential consideration by BuzzFeed’s team of editors. Anyone can sign up and make a post, and if the team likes your post it gets promoted on their social media. Job applications for BuzzFeed also often encourage applicants to submit a BuzzFeed profile, with some content made for the Community subsite.

I figured this might have been a simple attribution error, perhaps a misunderstanding of BuzzFeed Community. Since their comments were closed I tweeted to both NPR Code Switch and the writer, Leah Donella, asking for attribution to my name since I am not a staffer or a representative of BuzzFeed. All I wanted was my name and a link to my website.

What I wasn’t expecting was an extremely frustrating conversation with NPR Code Switch’s Digital Editor about attribution that’s left myself and a fair few friends & acquaintances dumbfounded.

In the rest of the article, they credit “a subreddit” and “Tumblr” for a string of posts about the same topic. But, as my friend Kelsey Higham stated on my Facebook post about this:

In the same post, they also attribute user posts to “a subreddit” (not “Reddit”) and “Tumblr”.
But people generally know that those are user submission websites, and they generally DON’T know that BuzzFeed is, too.
Consistency is not a substitute for clarity.

This is not the first time people have confused BuzzFeed Community posts with posts written by BuzzFeed staff. Indeed, BuzzFeed had to change their policies around Community posts after right-wing organizations posted anti-Obamacare and anti-abortion posts on Community, fooling even Senator Ted Cruz into assuming that BuzzFeed wrote those posts. There are very fine lines between the writing styles of BuzzFeed and BuzzFeed Community; confusion, perhaps, is inevitable.

Pando notes, in response to the brouhaha that prompted the change in guidelines, that posts like those can affect people’s trust in the BuzzFeed brand:

I argued that in a time when media is more distributed than ever, when stories travel via social media and other means independent of the rest of the news organization’s “bundle,” brand trust and authenticity are vital. Any time the possibility arises that someone might confuse a legitimate BuzzFeed-produced story with a marketing message planted by a third party, public trust in that brand risks erosion. (BuzzFeed gets away with its sponsored content, which looks like standard posts but is more clearly labeled and branded. PersonhoodUSA, meanwhile, paid zero dollars for the privilege of the BuzzFeed assist.)

They argue that BuzzFeed has the same problem as Medium, in that both of them can’t seem to decide whether they are an in-house editorial organization, a publishing platform, or both. I’ve usually defended Medium in these debates, because to me Medium seems like a publishing platform first that soon included a handful of in-house paid editorial projects; meanwhile, BuzzFeed started as an editorial (or perhaps advertorial) company that then expanded to include a publishing platform.

I chose to post my butter cookie post on BuzzFeed Community because I thought its goofiness would suit the platform. I’d already written about the topic on Twitter and Tumblr, and thought it would be a fun exercise to create a BuzzFeed-style post about it. I have also been looking for work for quite some time, especially at BuzzFeed or a similar media organization, and people have cited BuzzFeed Community posts as one of the key factors of their hire. I figured that the topic was timely and interesting enough that I could get some traction, BuzzFeed or similar would notice and reach out to me for a job, and I could cheer up my mother.

The post did gain significant traction: it hit 10,000 views overnight, and that definitely pleased my mother (who was stoked at being “viral”). It also got shared a lot on social media, mostly for its near-universal appeal.

However, I did not get any attention from BuzzFeed. It never got promoted by the BuzzFeed Community team. BuzzFeed staff created a quiz about butter cookie tins and sewing kits, but never linked my post anywhere. And, aside from a couple of quick emails related to research for a different job role, BuzzFeed still hasn’t approached me with a job offer or a pitch request. Nor has any other media outlet (indeed, despite going viral multiple times, none of that attention has ever translated into tangible benefits).

Much of the discussion around BuzzFeed Community has centered around its potential for people to gain legitimacy from the BuzzFeed branding even when their writing goes against BuzzFeed’s own policies. However, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of discussion around the reverse: BuzzFeed gaining attention and legitimacy from the unpaid work of community members. Our personal branding, as writers, is ignored and erased in favor of a company that’ll happily take our content but doesn’t always do much to reciprocate.

BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith is overly optimistic about people’s ability to differentiate Community posts from staff posts:

BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith told PaidContent’s Jeff Roberts that he thinks people are smart enough to tell the difference between the community content and the content produced by the site’s reporters.
“I think anyone who thinks that all these different kinds of contents can, or are, being separated aren’t looking at Facebook or Twitter,” Smith said. “If you think readers can’t deal with that, where are you? It’s not the future. It’s the present.”

As demonstrated by NPR Code Switch though, even established media outlets can’t tell the difference — or they don’t care.

If you’re relying on platforms like BuzzFeed Community to gain exposure and employment, seeing your hard work credited to a larger company that is profiting off your work without giving you a dime in compensation is frustrating. That this lack of care is coming from another media outlet is particularly galling. These are companies that are aware of the importance of proper attribution and citation, that (should) respect its writers — why won’t they respect other writers?

BuzzFeed shouldn’t be getting the sole credit for a post that I wrote, I researched, I scouted and took pictures for, I posted, I promoted. About the only part BuzzFeed was responsible for was the hosting — not even the signal boost. I don’t mind posting it on BuzzFeed Community per se, but at least most people linking to it credited me rather than BuzzFeed HQ, or at least didn’t try to make it sound like BuzzFeed HQ produced the post.

There needs to be better policy around attribution for posts created on a user-generated platform run by a larger media company that has its own in-house editorial staff. If you would credit “Twitter user X” or “Y on Facebook” when quoting a specific source (rather than an overview of posts), then at least credit “BuzzFeed Community member Z”, if nothing else. The “Medium problem” isn’t going to go away quickly, so media outlets that don’t have a user-generated subsection need to better understand those that do.

Meanwhile, sites with the “Medium problem”, like BuzzFeed, need to be less optimistic about people being able or willing to differentiate between staff content and user-generated content, and make better ways to differentiate the two — or at least be more honest about not wanting to do so, because it might affect their pageviews and branding, in case they get a popular post on Community and want the credit. Hey, if you notice that we’re driving traffic to your site, at least have the decency to thank us and invite us to work with you with pay. We’re earning you money, after all.

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