BuzzFeed is the future. Get over it.
ETA: I didn’t want to take this down for a few reasons, but also wanted to say some very iffy ethical practices have come to light in the meantime — read Kat Blaque’s take on the Dark Side of Buzzfeed for more
Last week, I was at the INBOUND conference in Boston. Despite an incredibly bro-y experience that bordered on unintentional satire, I enjoyed my time in Boston. I particularly enjoyed the talk by Jonah Peretti — you probably know him as the guy who created BuzzFeed.
His talk was excellent (easily the best one I saw) and I got a lot of notes from it. At some point, I shared this on Instagram/Facebook/Twitter:
"The questions that help @BuzzFeed measure quality of content, not just popularity, via Jonah Peretti #INBOUND15"instagram.com
Within less than five minutes, it had a couple of very snarky comments on FB about how that’s so much bullshit because BuzzFeed doesn’t ever produce any content of value or quality, etc. etc., you get the drift. I see this a lot — dismissal of BuzzFeed as nothing more than a platform for gif-based listicles. Even from people within the content marketing industry, who should really know better. It’s so off-base it’s not even funny.
First off, let me say I have no affiliation with BuzzFeed (although, hayyy, if y’all are looking for a tech/business writer, call me!). I don’t really have a horse in this race except that I’m a nerd for business and I hate snobbiness for snobbiness’s sake.
I mean, I get being snobby about coffee, because shitty coffee tastes like stanky sock water mixed with urine. But this strain of snobbery reminds me of an ex-boyfriend who looked down his nose at anything resembling genre fiction simply because it’s not “literary enough.” It’s probably not a coincidence that BuzzFeed was on his list of “places you can’t write for or I’ll lose respect for you as a writer.”
(Now that’s a listicle for you: 7 Sites You Can’t Write For Without Alienating Your Pretentious English Major Boyfriend. But I digress.)
First off, let’s address whether the gif-based listicle is actually the downfall of civilization that people want you to think it is.
(Spoiler: It’s not.)
If nothing else, laughter is important. It has actual, tangible stress-relieving benefits.
But also, inclusive humor is really important. BuzzFeed is arguably the largest site that makes it a point to feature inclusive humor, and it was one of the first sites aimed at a widespread audience that did so.
What do I mean by “inclusive humor”? Their content is aimed at people who don’t necessarily get served by traditional media outlets. This is why they create things like “25 Struggles Every Short Girl Will Understand.”
That might be entertaining, but it’s still pretty frivolous, right? However, BuzzFeed also has content (videos, listicles, you name it) like Awkward Moments Only Asians Will Understand or 18 Things Trans Men Are Tired Of Hearing or 13 Lies Your Depression Is Telling You.
These do two things:
- They let outsiders who aren’t in that specific group have a very vague idea of what it’s like to be in that group, just for a moment. We all know that if you try to convince someone of something (“people say stupid things to Asian people on a regular basis”), they’ll immediately go on the defensive. But if you show them a funny video, they’re more likely to laugh and then think “Oh shit, that would be annoying if I heard it every day. Maybe I should not say that.” Humor gets past peoples’ defenses and creates empathy.
- More importantly, they let that person know they aren’t alone. If you’re the only transgender person you know, you might not have anyone to vent to about the stupid things people say. If you’re struggling with depression, you might really need to hear that “you’re a worthless sack of shit and you’re going to die alone” is a lie created by a biochemical imbalance in your brain and isn’t a Real Empirical Truth. Even if it’s just from a stranger on the internet. You see that someone gets it, and that can mean a lot in lonely moments.
Back to the point about BuzzFeed being worthless: honestly, even if all they did was create content like what I’ve already referenced, I would be 100% okay with that.
It’s nice to have a place on the internet where I can go for a laugh and not know I’m going to see some steaming pile of BS like that “dear fat people” video. (And, FWIW, I’m not saying BuzzFeed is perfect, by any means — I’m just saying that their funny stuff does have some value.)
However, it’s a moot point, because BuzzFeed does do “real journalism.”
If you feel otherwise, I’d suggest you take a look at these articles:
- Does This Soldier’s Instagram Account Prove Russia Is Covertly Operating In Ukraine?
- Who Owns the Ancient One?
- Uber Executive Suggests Digging Up Dirt On Journalists and “God View”: Uber Investigates Its Top New York Executive For Privacy Violations
They’re varying styles (op-ed, news, etc.) but they’re not too far off from what you’d see on various reputable sites around the internet. So that solves the question of whether BuzzFeed is capable of creating high-quality content that has some kind of a larger effect. (Guess who picked up the Uber story after BuzzFeed broke it? CNN, among others. Also, their pieces on Uber prompted a senator to make inquiries into the matter. So yeah.)
The sister argument that normally goes here is that you can’t take BuzzFeed seriously as any kind of a news source or place for editorials because of their humor posts. This is crap.
For one thing, the traffic they get from listicles and lifestyle posts lets them fund their operations, which lets them pay their writers.
You know what says “journalistic integrity” to me? Being able to pay my rent this month.
I have no time or energy to deal with the assumption that writers should work for a lower-paying but more “prestigious” brand, rather than work with someplace that can pay them a living wage. (And as someone inside the industry, let me tell you, you’d be shocked at what some of the “big names” pay.)
They’re also offering an emerging writers fellowship, which pays $12,000 for four months. That’s not exactly “rolling in cash” pay, but I feel like it’s still worth noting in an industry where expectations of working for free still run rampant.
The best argument you can make here against BuzzFeed is that the advertising that they do on their humor/lifestyle side creates a conflict of interest that would transfer over to their news side.
But that’s still faulty, unless you have that problem with publishing in general. Do you really think a magazine would publish a hit piece on a company that just paid for 18 months of sponsorship?
Dismissing BuzzFeed as a company that doesn’t and could never do “real” journalism isn’t just short-sighted, it’s silly. Newspapers have hard-hitting opinion pieces and fluffy lifestyle pieces and comics all in one spot, and have for a long time. Why is it so mind-blowing to think that a website could do the same thing?
In fact, here are examples of all of that…
- For Those Who Remain In Syria, Daily Life is a Nightmare
- The 9/11 Anniversary Gets Fashion Week Off to a Somber Start
- Trauma Needs a Witness
- Bindles, Buns, Bike Caps: Self-Satire in Styles?
…coming from the New York Times.
In other words, BuzzFeed is the future, but they’re also using an old model.
They’re funding their long-form journalism via ad revenue, sponsored content, and data, which is essentially a traditional newspaper model that’s been optimized for the Internet and turned up to 11.
The biggest difference is that, because of the scale of their operation and how content spreads on the internet, BuzzFeed not only can create both short and long form pieces that are targeted at under-served groups of people, it’s an integral part of their strategy.
To sum up: BuzzFeed is using the same business model as an old-school newspaper, that (while not perfect) is actually more inclusive.
So…what’s the problem again?
Further reading: Why BuzzFeed Is Massively Underrated (and 9 Things Publishers and Brands Should Learn From It), BuzzFeed Just Cracked the Code on How Social Content Spreads, and It’s a Big Deal, and a big hat tip to the guys at the This Old Marketing podcast for getting some of these thoughts percolating for me over the last few months