In the early 2000s, the nature of online exchange started to shift. Things started to “go viral.”
One of the most talked about early cases of this was when then future BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti, a college kid at the time, tried to put the word “sweatshop” on a customizable pair of Nikes – and the email exchange with the company that resulted went from the hands of a few of his friends to thousands of people.
In his new book Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral, Ben Smith, former editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed News, lands on his promise to chronicle the rise of digital media through the story of a snowballing, head-to-head competition — between characters like Peretti and Nick Denton of Gawker Media, between the right and the left and, eventually, between the new found power of social networks and the institutions they helped create — in an attempt to answer the question: How did we get here?
Peretti was able to replicate the viral nature of the Nike exchange, building it into a business. But while Peretti managed to wield pockets of control on the internet, the social forces he helped create eventually became too strong for anyone to command.
In true BuzzFeed fashion, here are five takeaways from Traffic. (Peretti might have gotten a lot of things wrong, but the accessibility of lists was not one of them).
1. Conservatism has always been at the fringes of viral internet media.
The same Huffington Post that made an early political bet on Obama was co-founded by right-wing media personality Andrew Breitbart. People like Breitbart, Steve Bannon, and alt-right columnist Benny Johnson, once dismissed as minor characters, became key players in the rise of digital media. As Smith writes, when Arianna Huffington was building The Huffington Post as a liberal counterpart to The Drudge Report, she wanted to bring on someone who held the key to the conservative news aggregation website’s booming traffic. There was no one more fitting than Breitbart, who, at the time, was silently running The Drudge Report. With one hand in the early beginnings of The Huffington Post and another in The Drudge Report, Breitbart went on to found conservative site Breitbart News, which, during its inception, Smith described as “a kind of funhouse mirror to Gawker Media.”
2. The close relationship between social media and news is no accident.
Today, it seems intuitive that articles are shared on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, but the concept of a “news feed” has its roots in virality. In its early days, BuzzFeed was between a content company and a platform; it was still unclear how the company could be both editorial and scalable. But looking at the rise of Facebook and Twitter, BuzzFeed realized that these tech companies would one day be their source of revenue, similar to how older media companies like CNN relied on cable networks to provide channels for them. In 2012, Facebook even offered to buy BuzzFeed, but Peretti turned it down. Instead, Smith recalls, Peretti proposed the two work as partners in a kind of thought experiment, with the intent of further indulging in his obsession with BuzzFeed “taking informational content and packaging it with emotion and wit so it spreads on Facebook and other social platforms.”
3. At the core of traffic is identity.
In the early days of the internet, the elemental unit of traffic could be measured by one page view. But if you wanted to measure and control traffic, you had to look towards human behavior, Smith writes. “Traffic was human emotion, human psychology, desire and curiosity and humor. It was easiest to see this sort of pattern when you felt like an outsider, an alien.” As social media became more popular, editors at places like BuzzFeed and Gawker would have to learn that it, too, centered around identities. What was once perceived as a digital force has always been a social one; the implications of such an observation came too little too late.
4. On the other side of aggressive transparency is dishonesty.
Denton and Gawker had one vision for the future of media and it was this: revealing the naked truth. Whether it was a leaked sex-tape, a dick pic, or mining experiences purely for content, if it brought traffic, Denton wanted it, Smith writes. Such an attitude brought plenty of problems onto itself, but perhaps one of its most unintended consequences was that along the way, it produced dishonesty and self-censorship. “If Facebook’s staff thought Barack Obama was the culmination of what they’d built, it turned out he was just a way station on the road to Donald Trump,” Smith writes. The left-winged media’s race for attention always had the right looking over its shoulder — and long after Gawker shut down in 2016, Smith notes, Denton reflected, “Transparency has to be coaxed, not forced.”
5. In the end, Facebook dominated.
In 2018, Facebook announced a change in its algorithm, marking it as one that would focus on “meaningful social interactions.” In the midst, the platform propped up emotional engagement — successfully identifying what people were actually prone to sharing and talking about. “Their algorithm was holding an ever-more-precise mirror up to Americans’ psyches, and intensifying their strongest reactions,” Smith writes. And as BuzzFeed attempted to keep up, Donald Trump and the alt-right were way ahead — transforming what was once traffic, into real political power.