In “Traffic”, Ben Smith Tells BuzzFeed's Origin, Rise And Fall Story

6/6/2023

In June 2015, Jonah Peretti, founder of BuzzFeed, went to the headquarters of the New York Times to explain to the centennial newspaper how this internet thing worked.

In the words of Ben Smith, then editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed’s news arm, Jonah “was a mammal explaining to the dinosaurs how he had evolved beyond them.”

The excerpt is on a chapter of Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral, Ben’s new book that retells the origin, rise and fall of BuzzFeed.

For much of the 2010s, BuzzFeed seemed to be the future of journalism, the model of digital transformation to be followed by the traditional press, still clinging to the paper and practices of the 20th century.

At some point, however, the premises of BuzzFeed and his peers proved to be fragile, the big techs — especially Meta/Facebook — betrayed everyone and, in the end, it’s the media dinosaurs that will probably survive the yet to come extinction of BuzzFeed.

As in every good story, Traffic brings a range of characters with striking characteristics. Ben embodied Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker, a New York blogging network with a pledge for absolute transparency, Jonah’s antagonist in the billionaire race to which the book’s subtitle alludes.

Nick was pure instinct. Jonah, rational — the mad scientist exploring formulas to make content go viral on the internet. In common, both were obsessed with traffic, with raw audience numbers. She was the measure of success, the goal to be hit, everything that mattered.

The internet bought this narrative, which led BuzzFeed to reject a USD 450 million offer from Disney and, at some point, worth USD 1.8 billion after successive rounds of VC money.

But the promise that traffic would be the gold of the press in the internet era was not sustained for long. When the then Facebook discovered that it could profit much more by keeping the viral cycles within its domains, instead of opening the traffic firehose for the open web, the future of BuzzFeed and everything it represented was put in check.

Interestingly, according to Ben’s report, it was the biggest event in the history of BuzzFeed that turned on this light on Mark Zuckerberg’s head: “The Dress”, an uncompromising post that asked the audience the color of a black and blue (or was it white and gold?) dress, that got 37 million views alone.

Traffic, as they came to discover in the worst way that wave of progressive journalists and entrepreneurs, was fool’s gold. Worse than not paying the bills at the end of the month, the obsession with traffic generated questionable incentives and content.

It was not with Facebook, but before, still with Digg, that this strange alignment was apparent, as Ben says:

Digg’s power came from an opaque blend of community and algorithm, and it was beginning to shape not just what got read but how the news was written. The tail had begun to wag the dog; the story had begun to chase the traffic.

Perhaps who best understood the new dynamic on the internet was initially supporting figures in the story, such as Andrew Breitbart, Steve Bannon. and Benny Johnson. They participated, in some way, in the stories of BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post and Gawker. Years later, they used techniques similar to those employed by Jonah and Nick to radicalize the political debate and elect abject figures such as Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte. and Jair Bolsonaro.

In the book, Ben makes a big “mea culpa” in this regard:

At Donald Trump’s White House in 2019, right-wingers were celebrating the conversion of traffic not into money, as Jonah and Nick had imagined, but into raw political power.

The internet of 2023 is very different from the one that saw the empires of Nick and Jonah grow. The New York Times and other renowned newspapers learned to navigate the digital and made a bold bet — on paid subscriptions — that paid handsomely in 2016, when Trump arrived at the White House.

Gawker was decimated by Silicon Valley money. In a puppet process driven by Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea for an intimate video leaked by the vehicle, conservative mega-investor Peter Thiel threw some money to get Nick out of the game.

Jonah, by leaps and bounds, survived Facebook’s turn, which suddenly dried up the tsunami of traffic it sent to external sites — BuzzFeed among the biggest beneficiaries.

In December 2021, BuzzFeed went public in a SPAC, a financial instrument that facilitated many IPOs, although most were of bad papers. At that time, BuzzFeed was already a bad deal.

BuzzFeed’s market value, of USD 1.7 billion on its the IPO, plummeted already in the first week of trading. In May 2023, the value of the share fell below USD 1. If it not reverse this scenario by the end of the year, BuzzFeed will be delisted from Nasdaq.

After dissolving the award-winning journalism team and ending BuzzFeed News (ironically, days before Traffic’s release in the US), BuzzFeed’s new bet to become profitable is to use artificial intelligence to generate quizzes and travel guides in large volume at pennies.

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