I Defended BuzzFeed Yesterday


I know, I know.

You see, I read an article on Medium yesterday about how BuzzFeed uses data and metrics to determine what content is shareable. It mentions a quote from BuzzFeed Founder and CEO Jonah Peretti, as published in Fortune:

It’s dangerous to only follow the numbers. I think there’s a lot of over-optimization on the web. You see this sort of ‘side boob’ trap or something, where you put some picture of a celebrity whose dress lets you see the side of her boob on the front of your website, and you say, ‘Wow! That gets a really high click-through rate.’ If you were a slave to the numbers, you’d start putting more stuff like that and more stuff like that and more stuff like that. And pretty soon you would have a site full of trashy, salacious garbage…

That’s why exploring lots of different kinds of content, and thinking about things on a human level and saying, ‘Is this actually good content, or are people just clicking this because they can’t resist clicking it because it’s a guilty pleasure?’ is important. You need to have creative, experimental people trying lots of different things. And then the data becomes meaningful.

Upon reading this article, a friend of mine argued that BuzzFeed is about numbers and that all BuzzFeed does is produce “garbage content.”

Buzzfeed doesn’t even create any content. They just take photos from others and add an obnoxious clickbait title.

I’ve heard the argument that all BuzzFeed does is try to get readers to share its content. And that’s why they always post stupid listicles, pictures of adorable animals and quizzes that aren’t even accurate (just ask Ellen DeGeneres). I know that BuzzFeed loves numbers. In fact, Forbes contributor Benjy Boxer wrote:

Upstarts, like BuzzFeed, take advantage of data analysis to build a new online media company, which blends ad buying (traditionally an ad agency business) and publishing… their core competencies is producing and selectively distributing content with a high viral coefficient.

I also understand that, as my friend pointed out, many times the site takes already existing articles and reproduces them as its own. This is a huge problem. Plagiarism is plagiarism, and if you’re going to attribute someone, you need to attribute them correctly.

But I also pointed out to my friend that BuzzFeed does produce actual content too.

Did you know the site has an actual news section? A politics section? A DC bureau chief? It even has reporters stationed right now in the Ukraine, Syria, Turkey and Egypt, as well as a new investigative unit and some pretty great longform writing (this piece on sexual assault in India was particularly interesting).

Jennifer Saba wrote for Reuters:

Less known outside media circles is BuzzFeed’s foray into serious journalism, which began two years ago when it hired Ben Smith, a former Politico reporter, as its editor-in-chief.

Headquartered in New York, BuzzFeed now has more than 150 journalists, an investigative reporting unit, bureaus in Australia and the United Kingdom, and foreign correspondents in far-flung places like Nairobi and the Middle East.

Its expansion comes amid a wave of investor interest in new media companies that are trying to capitalize on a decade-long wave of job cuts at newspapers, and new technology that has upended how news and advertising are produced and distributed.

Slowly growing its reporting units, BuzzFeed is producing content, and good content too.

Of course, it has its obstacles. At least one editor has defended its verification practices, which were attacked during the Elan Gale hoax. And can BuzzFeed be a credible news source when the top story on its homepage is just another listicle?

The site has its work cut out for itself, no joke. But it’s trying.