The Digital Anthropologist: Buzzfeed’s Goliath Moment

This article originally appeared in The Advertising Technology Review in 2013.

Some people—ad tech and publishing people—really, really hate BuzzFeed. The blogosphere, while praising shareability and audience choice, has unleashed a torrent of disdain—ranging from scathing critique to outright jeers—upon the brave new world of curated content, helmed by the ubiquitous BuzzFeed, a $200 million company which has upended the digital ecosystem, bolstered by its 160 million monthly uniques.

Yet major publishers can’t—at least for now—be dethroned by click-driven sites like BuzzFeed, which until 2012 merely ranked and redistributed syndicated articles and user posts, producing limited original content. So why the Kimye-worthy hate? It isn’t because, like Gwyneth Paltrow, it is rich, lean and seems to know and post everything about almost everything that is clever and delightful. It is because BuzzFeed—scrappy, fun and oblivious to The Way Things Are Done—has managed to alter the DNA of digital content, causing the ecosystem to look more like a functional (if somewhat chaotic) democracy and less like a 1950’s Southern gentlemen’s club.

It is because BuzzFeed–scrappy, fun and oblivious, contemptuous or unbending to The Way Things Are Done–has managed to alter the DNA of digital content, causing the ecosystem to look more like a functional (if somewhat chaotic) democracy and less like a 1950’s Southern gentlemen’s club.

1. Content Curation is Data-Driven and Use-Driven
The world of content curation is an odd one, at least for some traditional publishers online: when audiences don’t like content, it leaves the front page. That is a radical, threatening concept for an ecosystem which was built to mimic the hierarchies and the direct response model of print publishing. The reader is now a  full-fledged player in the ecosystem becoming one of many millions of editors-by-proxy via interaction on digital publishing’s most valuable real estate, the front page. Behind the cute kitten slides and addictive quizzes is a difficult question about the state and purpose of modern digital journalism. Consumers, because of the Big Data industry’s efficiency in delivering rich lifestyle insights via ad tech to publishers, have become more powerful now than any other time in digital content’s short history. Readers can make their own case for content value openly:  brands and publishers may soon no longer have the luxury of foisting content upon their readers that they simply don’t want. Not, that is, if they want to keep shareholders happy and investors interested.

Behind the cute kittens and addictive quizzes is a difficult question about the state and purpose of modern digital journalism.

 

2. Content Curation Can Break Hard News
The shrill campaign to paint content curation as exclusively a realm of bemused cats and ‘hot-or-not” quizzes is a failed one, said Jonah Peretti during a group interview at New York’s Social Media Week in February. “Traffic is a by-product of doing good work as a reporter- having smart creative humans making most of decisions guided by great data is really the best model,”  Peretti stated. The company is now investing millions in developing an international hard news wing. This echoes what BuzzFeed’s Jon Steinberg told me in 2012; BuzzFeed not only has no intention of stopping at a mere rebranding of so-called “page-view journalism,” it plans to take a seat next the big media powers-that-be.

“Social is the new starting point for the publishing industry,” stated Steinberg. “There is a sea change from portals to search to social. BuzzFeed is building the definitive social publishing site and this extends to brands. We want to build a giant media company for the social world. I think social has jarred big media, whereas we’re excited about it – it’s our whole world.” BuzzFeed is an open platform, and like open source code, anyone can access it. That means that stories with social and political significance can break directly on BuzzFeed and enter a real-time publishing ecosystem which self-edits for relevance and self-distributes in multiple languages. The lack of an institutionalized editorial process for openly sourced stories means that journalists, academics and ordinary citizens can fact-check, counter-argue and even directly engage with authors far more easily than through traditional publishing brand channels.

“BuzzFeed is building the definitive social publishing site and this extends to brands,” said Steinberg in 2012. “We want to build a giant media company for the social world.”

3. Content Curation Highlights Ecosystem Flaws
One of traditional publishing’s biggest issues with content curation is that it highlights the panoply of sameness which much of the industry, at one time or another, indulges in, as well as a broad, systemic failure to provide consistent results for advertisers. Simply by virtue of its high interaction rates, content curation sites such as BuzzFeed show traditional advertising technology’s long trek ahead towards engagement parity. BuzzFeed hinted, as early as 2012, that it was working on a new model of digital advertising for its partner brands. “We don’t think display advertising works,” stated Steinberg. “Social advertising is the ultimate targeting tool because it’s word of mouth updated for online. Real humans passing content to other real humans. All the big data cookie targeting in the world doesn’t achieve that.”

BuzzFeed’s disruptive role might eventually even extend to serving as an impartial arbiter of editorial voice, as the site could—without fear of offending a league of elite fellow publishers—make a list of copycat headlines which unveil patterns, common themes and even occasional bias. Content curation also allows consumers to view a fairly comprehensive ecosystem snapshot and put aside publishing brand loyalty momentarily to see which source is presenting the news in the most appealing package of data and perspective. Daily, the same stories are reported with varying shades of difference online: consumers–before content curation–would rarely compare the same story as reported by the New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times, and the Washington Post.

One of traditional publishing’s biggest issues with content curation is that it highlights the panoply of sameness which much of the industry, at one time or another, indulges in, as well as a broad, systemic failure to provide consistent results for advertisers.

Today’s readers can now view headlines, ledes, and even the readership of stories globally and in aggregate. Content curation has begun to inject a jarring dose of transparency into a frequently opaque ecosystem unaccustomed to accountability, user-responsiveness and above all, reform. That means that a competition for readership based on the value of content rather than publishing brand loyalty is back, in real-time. Publishers may find themselves drawn back to the old days of the newstand, fighting for territory on a rack that appears to be shrinking minute by minute.

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