A Dishy New History of BuzzFeed and Gawker Leaves Out Half the Story
Last month an alluringly outlandish news story crossed my various social media feeds, about a Florida charter school whose principal had been dismissed due, it seemed, to parental complaints about Michelangelo’s David being shown to children in a Renaissance art class. I called the chairman of the school’s board, an indignant right-winger with a chronic inability to not comment. As I transcribed the interview and built the post in Slate’s content management system, it did cross my mind that our conversation really revealed something notable about the way certain conservatives think about education. But mostly I thought, This is going to get a lot of traffic.
Most people who write for the internet have had the experience of publishing something that escapes the bounds of one’s usual audience and goes viral. The experience can be mesmerizing. After I published that Q&A with Barney Bishop III, I lost hours toggling from Slate’s traffic dashboard to Twitter and back. Each refresh of Parse.ly showed me how many thousands of people were looking at my story right now. Each visit back to Twitter revealed a new batch of responses, a number magically appearing on that little bell in the sidebar, a fresh dopamine hit to the ol’ cerebral cortex.
“That was quite an interview,” a neighbor told me while grabbing a drink that Friday afternoon. The virality had escaped the internet and had come back to me IRL. This is always disconcerting, because what is so unusual about the experience of going viral, so uniquely modern, is that it makes concrete the deranging split the self undergoes in the 21st century, between one’s online identity and one’s physical body. Most people are able, most of the time, to ignore this split. But not the human being gone megavi. You may step away from your computer, or put away your phone, and forget for a moment that something enormous is happening to you—something that might define you in the minds of untold thousands, something that might deliver opportunity or danger or boost your career or torpedo it. But that conversation does not stop, even if you’re no longer participating in it. Pour a glass of water. Talk to your kids. Somewhere else, that parallel world, the wave of traffic continues to build, and a version of you is still riding it or, more likely, being overwhelmed by it. It will carry you along until it inevitably recedes, leaving you beached in a new place.
“To have all that traffic—that is, attention—rain down on you, is to have your life redirected,” Ben Smith writes in Traffic, his retelling of the past two decades in internet media. For Jonah Peretti, in 2001 a grad student at the MIT Media Lab who had gone viral for attempting to use Nike’s online sneaker-personalization tool to print SWEATSHOP on a pair of Zoom XCs, his first experience with that kind of attention set him on a path to understand how online buzz feeds on its targets. In Smith’s telling, Peretti, inspired and awed by this moment in the sun—he even found himself on the Today show, questioned by a friendly Katie Couric—became his generation’s foremost social manipulator, a master of the dark arts of traffic. “Nobody was better at it,” Smith writes. “Nobody saw more clearly the feedback loop between the signals people sent you on social media and the combination of data and creativity that would allow you to feed their own preferences back to them.”
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Traffic follows Peretti from MIT to the Huffington Post and then to BuzzFeed, the media company he founded, led into the promised land, and then struggled to keep afloat. Peretti’s view of traffic as an elemental force that, with rigorous effort, can be bent to one’s whims is at odds with that of the book’s other subject, Nick Denton, the onetime king of Gawker Media, who viewed traffic as a reward for editorial quality, albeit not always the kinds of editorial quality everyone could agree on. An alleged photo of Brett Favre’s dick, for example.
Denton grew up in London as the child of a mother who survived the Holocaust in Hungary and a father who oversaw a government-owned country retreat, an outsider who was also an insider: Jewish but part of the establishment, closeted but popular. “He was famous for not committing to a Friday- or Saturday-night plan unless he could be certain that he had alighted on the best option,” according to a high school friend. He rewarded quality, that is to say, with his own traffic. He came to New York in 2002, a 35-year-old entrepreneur fleeing the first great Silicon Valley bust with an eye toward taking blogging into the mainstream. To the young writers he met at the downtown bar the Magician, Denton “loomed large,” Smith writes, “in the way that the older guy buying the drinks can.”
Through Denton and Peretti, Smith attempts to tell the entire 21st-century story of online media, and quite a bit of that story ends up in the book. Smith’s particularly good when he close-reads a particular publication in its ephemeral context. He’s right, for example, to devote a chapter to Gawker Media’s Jezebel in its first year, when the site’s swashbuckling writers brought to life editor Anna Holmes’ goal to entertainingly critique not just the women’s magazine industry but an entire sexist media culture that silenced women’s real stories, bodies, and souls. Smith identifies what felt new about the site’s merging of intersectional identity with journalism, and shrewdly points out how it paved the way for the mainstreaming of new ways of thinking about feminism—and, not incidentally, laid the groundwork for #MeToo. And they did all this despite Denton’s concerns that feminism, as a subject, was a traffic-killer. “Do you really need to do so many posts about periods or abortion or rape?” he asked Holmes, who ignored him—who could afford to ignore him because, by his own standard, Jezebel was a content-validating success, exceeding a million page views a month within a year of the site’s 2007 launch.
Denton now jokes about his bad-cop interactions with the staff at Gawker’s many sites: “A lot of it was theater—wasn’t it?” he asks Smith. Indeed, Denton, a sub-replacement-level blogger when he took the reins himself, excelled at the role of provocateur boss: tweaking his own writers in the comments and paying out bonuses based on the real-time traffic scoreboards he installed in the Gawker Media offices. Yet there was real affection in the way his writers wrote about him, as a withholding daddy, as an admirably evil genius, as the king of the trolls. The most heartbreaking moment in Traffic is one of Denton coolly withdrawing his esteem for one of those writers. It happens after the Hulk Hogan trial, in which the wrestler, bankrolled by a grudge-holding Peter Thiel, refused to settle an invasion-of-privacy case that eventually killed the company. (My wife was an attorney on the team defending Gawker; Smith, to my eye, covers the trial reasonably well, though he underplays the pure malevolent stupidity of Pamela Campbell, the Florida state judge who oversaw the trial and whose rulings, regularly overturned by appeals courts, nevertheless left Denton and Gawker backed into a financial corner.) In Denton’s farewell post, he named more than a dozen of the company’s stars, many of them still-crucial media figures like Tom Scocca, Caity Weaver, Choire Sicha, and Alex Pareene. But he never named his co-defendant A.J. Daulerio, who’d published the Hogan sex tape. Daulerio, in many ways, idolized Denton, and the lawsuit left him penniless. He later wrote that the omission “blew a hole through my chest.”
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I never met Peretti, and I attended but one of Denton’s legendary parties, where I was too dumb to understand that everyone was doing coke in the bathroom. I interacted with the New York City blogging scene mostly as a reader and occasional tipster, when Gawker’s prurient interests intersected with my limited knowledge. But in 2006, I was hired to launch a culture blog by New York magazine, and soon I was churning out 15 posts a day, an astonishing publishing pace that drove me, then the father of a toddler, slightly crazy, but also allowed me and my co-editor to write with nearly complete abandon. We could pursue any passion or milk any joke, because it was all content, the more the better, who even had time to read it all, and if that meant devoting inordinate attention to the GEICO cavemen or angel-voiced David Archuleta, so be it. Sometimes our boss would wonder via instant message if there was really so much of an audience for long exegeses on the marginal HBO sex drama Tell Me You Love Me, but for the most part he shrugged and let us pursue our passions on the page. Like Denton, he felt that hiring the right people and letting them loose was the way to bring traffic to your website. (Peretti was more systematic, according to Smith: He simply checked Gawker’s publicly available traffic leaderboards and hired the writers at the top of them.)
It’s worth noting that that the two places I’ve spent the Traffic Era writing and editing, Vulture and now Slate, make zero appearances in Traffic, a book that, with a few exceptions (Ozy and Upworthy), remains intently focused on its two totems of internet media. Smith nods to the reascendancy of the New York Times in a well-reported chapter focusing on the paper’s defining 2013 innovation report, but otherwise the vast majority of websites that published for clicks over the past 20 years go unexplored: the A.V. Club, the Onion, the Awl, Hipster Runoff, Free Darko, Fire Joe Morgan, Grantland, Deadline Hollywood, TMZ, Salon, Television Without Pity, Stereogum, Videogum, the Toast, the Hairpin, Rookie, Bustle, Gothamist, all the various other -ists, Pitchfork, MP3 blogs, WorldStarHipHop, Daily Kos, FiveThirtyEight, Wonkblog, Axios, TPM, Business Insider, Yahoo News, the Daily Beast, MSN, Mic, Boing Boing, Fark, and uncountable more ranging from idiosyncratic passion project to VC-funded Future of Media. This isn’t even to mention the web efforts of legacy outlets, many of which did have an impact, then and/or now: the Atlantic, the New Republic, Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, the Stranger, Complex, Cracked, ESPN, MTV, all the news networks and newspapers that aren’t the Times. Tumblr—Tumblr!—is mentioned only in passing. So is Perez Hilton. ClickHole, the canniest-ever critic on the subject of virality, doesn’t appear at all.
It’s a shame that Smith’s book, so focused on its two mad scientists turned CEOs, spends so little time really digging into what it was like for the writers and—perhaps more importantly—the readers of that era. Of course no book could cover the 2000s and 2010s online media world in toto. It was simply too sprawling, a Yellowstone National Park of content with unexpected geysers and hot springs bubbling up everywhere, fueled by superheated passion that had boiled underground for our whole lives. It was that sprawling nature that made it so much more satisfying as a reader than the products of today’s more streamlined content economy. In part that was because so few of us really knew the rules, knew how traffic actually worked (except maybe Peretti). And even those who thought they did found out only later that they’d been wrong, or more darkly, that they’d been misled, a story that only glancingly gets told in Traffic. Those errors led, perhaps continue to lead, to some remarkable industrywide disasters, only some of which go chronicled in Traffic. (Control-F “pivot to video”: zero results, despite the fact that Smith himself was BuzzFeed’s editor in chief when the site, like so many others, made that shift.)
Smith does devote several chapters to the right wing’s mastery of the viral internet, as seen through the many figures from that world who spent time in the early-aughts NYC scene. (One of Peretti’s co-founders at the Huffington Post, for instance, was Andrew Breitbart, whose importance at the time stemmed from his work for Matt Drudge.) Several, like Newsmax host Benny Johnson and the alt-right influencer Anthime Joseph Gionet (Baked Alaska), worked at BuzzFeed. “His politics have been guided by platform metrics,” a BuzzFeed producer tells Smith about Gionet, who, even before he stormed the Capitol, had made his own pivot, from pouring milk all over himself to spouting far-right propaganda. Smith points out that at BuzzFeed, Gionet’s willingness to do “pretty much anything for attention” had been forced to abide by certain boundaries: accuracy, for example. His explanation of Gionet’s devolution is ClickHole-esque in its evident respect for the natural desire of all content to go viral: “There was a purity in the way Gionet had abandoned those guardrails and thrown his identity on the mercy of the internet, turned himself into its mirror.”
The book’s two visions of the internet come together in Smith’s retelling of his 2017 decision to publish the Steele dossier on BuzzFeed, where he ran the news division. Smith poses the decision as one driven by confidence that readers are smart enough to see a document that was already rattling around the power centers of Washington with their own eyes, and judge it on its own merits—the Gawker philosophy, in essence, that it’s always worth publishing whatever it is that people in power are whispering about. Though he still defends the choice, he admits now that he was wrong. “The reality of America in the late 2010s had rebutted Nick’s and my win-win assurance that people could be trusted with a complex, contradictory set of information.” No longer, he understands, could journalists “simply print what they had, and revel, guilt-free, in the traffic.”
For no matter how high-minded Smith’s justifications, how Dentonian his dedication to exposing the truth, I know that when he got his hands on that dossier he felt the same Perettian prickle at the back of his neck that I did, interviewing Barney Bishop III. After Smith hit publish, he recalls, he saw the organization’s big traffic board activate like a pinball machine. Every blogger on the internet would recognize what he did then: He lost an hour with his eyes flicking between the traffic board and Twitter, refreshing and refreshing. “I went to stand in the middle of the newsroom,” he writes, “to watch the traffic flow.”