The unbearable lightness of BuzzFeed
Nina* was scrolling Apple News in July 2021 when she came across a headline that looked familiar. Even before opening the story, she had a feeling she might be in it.
The BuzzFeed article, titled “People Are Sharing Non-Obvious Signs That Are Actually A Cry For Help, And It’s Eye-Opening,” was taken from a Reddit thread posted earlier in the day asking how to recognize when someone is struggling with mental health issues. The story pulled in more than a dozen Reddit responses to create a numbered list. A comment Nina had left was right at the top.
“I posted something extremely personal and it happened to be the first quote in their article which was one of the top articles of the day on Apple News,” Nina told The Verge in an email. (Nina requested a pseudonym to protect her privacy.) “That’s scary. I had no idea, I didn’t know my username would be linked with it, and it was a total accident I stumbled upon it.”
When Nina asked other Redditors about BuzzFeed’s sourcing practices, she found a sense of resignation but also open frustration — a sense of theft. BuzzFeed was “sleazy,” some said, and most journalism was a “clickbait fiesta.” Even a few conspiracy theories emerged, like the suggestion that BuzzFeed writers planted r/AskReddit questions for upcoming stories. (BuzzFeed spokesperson Matt Mittenthal says the outlet doesn’t do this, instead crowdsourcing responses from readers.)
BuzzFeed built an empire on posts like this — mining Reddit, Tumblr, and other social media sites for content with the potential to go viral, repackaging it for a broader audience, and collecting the resulting traffic from Facebook shares. In the early to mid-2010s, the strategy seemed all but unstoppable: cute animals and feel-good photos subsidized a ferociously ambitious hard news division, and BuzzFeed’s ability to drive internet culture sparked outright jealousy from others in the media.
“I hate myself because I don’t work at BuzzFeed,” the letter read
An anonymous note sent to The Awl’s advice columnist in 2015 captured BuzzFeed’s cultural cachet: “I hate myself because I don’t work at BuzzFeed,” the letter read. “BuzzFeed is the most widely recognized media brand among young people, and will inevitably eclipse the major media organizations and one day become a super-hegemonic media power the likes of which we’ve never seen.”
But what worked in 2015 is a far cry from what works in 2022. On Monday, BuzzFeed reported earnings for the fourth time as a public company, recording $103.7 million in revenue for the latest quarter, above its own projections. But the rest of the news was dire: BuzzFeed lost $27 million, and the time audiences spent with its content plunged 32 percent from a year ago — its fourth straight quarterly decline. The company expects revenue in the fourth quarter of 2022 to dip compared to last year as well.
BuzzFeed’s ability to reflect, amplify, and create massive cultural moments by giving a staff of hundreds free rein to invent new formats led to a $1.7 billion valuation in 2016. It built a Pulitzer-winning newsroom with BuzzFeed News, popularized a genre of simple and stylized cooking content with Tasty, and launched a slate of beloved shows like BuzzFeed Unsolved and Another Round.
Today, BuzzFeed’s high-profile hosts have moved on, its news division has been gutted, and its core website pays contractors flat rates starting around $100 per post to chase trending topics. The company’s valuation is down to just $237 million, and dozens of current and former employees are suing BuzzFeed for losing out on millions, saying they weren’t able to sell their shares during the brief financial bright spot after the company went public last year. They now watch from the outside as the company’s value plummets and newer, more ruthless competitors native to the platforms themselves generate viral chum faster and more cheaply.
As social platforms continue to limit its reach, BuzzFeed needs to generate one more neat trick to reinvent digital media — and save itself in the process.
Former BuzzFeed employees had good things to say about their workplace at its peak, describing it as a place filled with funny, smart people who were allowed to experiment and create interesting work. Most importantly, that work got attention. Viral quizzes like “What state do you actually belong in?” were shared endlessly. Cute animal photos gathered from around the internet might not have had journalistic impact, but they did reach millions of readers. One day on Facebook Live, more than 800,000 people watched as BuzzFeed staffers methodically placed rubber bands on a watermelon until it exploded.
Media circles and even the public at large often turned its nose up at classic BuzzFeed content. But the viral format of classic BuzzFeed was good for business for a while: between 2012 and 2013, the company tripled its revenue to more than $64 million and invested millions into its editorial operations, according to documents that leaked in 2015.
And despite what the casual reader might think, there was an art to putting together the kind of BuzzFeed post that sets records in web traffic.
“It’s actually a lot of work.”
“It wasn’t just, ‘I’m gonna go on Twitter and slap in 18 different tweets about this TV show,’” say Cates Holderness, who worked at BuzzFeed for more than seven years. “It takes time to really curate things that would go into a list that seemingly takes five minutes to make. It’s actually a lot of work.”
Holderness was a BuzzFeed user first and was then hired as a content moderator, eventually working on audience development and running several of BuzzFeed’s popular Tumblr accounts. She and other staff took care to nurture relationships with communities on other platforms — especially on Tumblr.
“There was a very mutually beneficial relationship,” Holderness says. “We would find content from Tumblr to post on BuzzFeed. We would take content from BuzzFeed and post it on our Tumblr.”
The relationship between Holderness and Tumblr eventually led to The Dress, one of BuzzFeed’s most iconic pieces of content.
In 2015, the grainy image of a two-toned dress wreaked havoc on the internet when people realized they saw the garment in different colors. BuzzFeed reposted the picture along with 27 words and a poll at the bottom of the article, generating 28 million page views in a single day. But Holderness didn’t just lift the photo from the microblogging platform: a Tumblr follower had actively sent it to her and asked her to weigh in on whether it was blue and black or white and gold. That interaction was typical — there was a mutually beneficial feedback loop between BuzzFeed staffers and the spaces they were embedded in.
“There’s a lot of goodwill, I think, to this day, for a lot of the former people at BuzzFeed who have gone on to different projects,” Holderness says. She is now the head of editorial at Tumblr.
Making good BuzzFeed content depended on staff being in tune with communities, knowing what was trending, and finding a unique angle that got people to click — whether that was royal family drama, cat videos, or the latest episode of a trending TV show. It didn’t really matter what color The Dress was, says Holderness, because the debate was low stakes. BuzzFeed was about having a positive, lighthearted perspective on the internet, remixing and amplifying what was happening on the platforms, not just mirroring what was already popular there.
For a period in the early to mid-2010s, viral content publishers looked like the winners. BuzzFeed, Upworthy, and HuffPost dominated Facebook feeds in 2013, according to data from NewsWhip, a company that tracks social media engagement and activity. In early 2014, BuzzFeed topped NewsWhip’s rankings of top publishers on Facebook, raking in 50 million engagements like shares and comments on its content in one month on the platform.
BuzzFeed’s major business breakthrough was selling sponsored versions of its viral lists and roundups to advertisers as “native advertising” — for example, cat articles sponsored by a pet food company. CEO Jonah Peretti criticized traditional banners-and-boxes advertising as “slow” and “terrible,” and for a moment, it looked like BuzzFeed had cracked a winning formula. Advertising that looked like normal BuzzFeed content was then boosted on social media platforms that readers frequented; BuzzFeed spent nearly $10 million in 2013 buying views of those ads on Facebook and other platforms. The strategy worked so well that other publishers raced to build “branded content studios” to compete. (Disclosure: Vox Media, The Verge’s parent company, does all of these things and also competes with BuzzFeed.)
But outlets that depend on third-party platforms for traffic live and die according to platforms’ whims. A Facebook algorithm change aimed at reducing “clickbait” around 2014, for example, hit viral content mills the hardest. Upworthy, which at one point was called “the fastest growing media site of all time,” went from 87 million monthly visitors to 49 million in a matter of months in late 2013 — more than 40 percent of traffic wiped out. Smaller outfits that were almost entirely dependent on Facebook traffic — like Distractify or LittleThings — have since shuttered completely or disappeared from the general consciousness.
Reddit copied BuzzFeed, too
While BuzzFeed was busy bringing in massive traffic from disgruntled Reddit users, Reddit itself wanted what BuzzFeed had. Upvoted, a short-lived BuzzFeed knockoff, was the platform’s play in 2015.
A Wayback Machine capture of the front page of Upvoted in 2016 is remarkably similar to what might have appeared on BuzzFeed: a live coverage feed of the Panama Papers sits right above a “trending” stories bar that includes a list of photoshopped images of Kevin Spacey and a deep dive in the “NoFap revolution.” A former Upvoted staffer told The Verge that the resemblance was intentional.
“They wanted to be the next BuzzFeed.”
Redditors are not exactly known to always be buttoned up or candid. Now imagine a job where a writer is asked to only source from Reddit, interview and credit the OP of threads, and publish content on a blog meant to showcase the community.
“I struggled with being like, ‘Am I supposed to quote ButtPlug69?’” says the former staffer. “It’s all anonymous. You can’t actually find out who the person is even if you interview them because then they would be outed.”
Upvoted didn’t last very long and never got anywhere close to the impact that BuzzFeed had — it was put “on hold” in 2016, eventually morphing into a corporate blog with company updates. (Roxy Young, chief marketing officer, says Reddit decided to wind down Upvoted when new features like embeds and the mobile app came along.)
Reddit found out the hard way that harnessing virality is a tough business — maybe even too hard for the outlets that were on top.
Certain algorithm changes, like a 2018 overhaul of the News Feed to weigh certain kinds of interactions more heavily, meaningfully limited BuzzFeed’s reach on the platform. According to emails obtained by The Wall Street Journal, Peretti flagged to Facebook that year that the algorithm’s new focus on interactions between users amplified conflict at the expense of BuzzFeed’s lighthearted and inoffensive content.
NewsWhip data shows that BuzzFeed’s footprint on Facebook has withered away for years as a result of these changes. In 2016, BuzzFeed stories posted on the platform had 329 million engagements; by 2018, that number had fallen to less than half. Last year, BuzzFeed posts received 29 million engagements, and this year is shaping up to be even worse.
Peretti has tried to expand beyond BuzzFeed’s core viral model. BuzzFeed’s newsroom, which launched in 2012 with Ben Smith as editor-in-chief, went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, but it was downsized earlier this year, hours before the company posted poor results for its first quarter as a public company. Attempts at expanding into podcasts with acclaimed shows like Another Round and See Something Say Something ended in cancellations after its in-house podcast unit was disbanded. (Peretti later admitted BuzzFeed’s business team was “bad at selling podcasts to clients.”)
The publication keeps bumping up against a core issue: the main service provided by BuzzFeed.com is no longer unique. “That space was really filled by social media, the rise of Instagram and TikTok, all these different places where people can become internet famous directly,” a former staffer of Upvoted, Reddit’s short-lived BuzzFeed copycat blog, says. “I feel like there’s almost a middleman that’s been removed.”
Eventually, Peretti had to pivot. He allowed traditional web advertising on BuzzFeed after years of shunning banner ads — making the economics of BuzzFeed the same as other publishers trying to extract revenue from a dwindling amount of social media traffic.
BuzzFeed insists that it’s still producing content that people want to read, and Facebook is still sending audiences its way. Of the 2.7 million hits that “Teachers Share Incidents With Students That Caused Them To Change Their Policies” garnered, 1.7 million referrals came from Facebook, according to BuzzFeed spokesperson Mittenthal.
But a more recent change in Facebook priorities is again eating away at BuzzFeed’s reach. As Facebook prioritizes shortform video to compete with TikTok, longform video content — the stuff that helped catapult BuzzFeed personalities into stars — is hurting. On a call with investors earlier this week, BuzzFeed executives said Facebook accounted for the majority of the dip in the time its audience spent on its properties.
Today, rewriting Reddit threads and viral posts from elsewhere is part of BuzzFeed’s regular workflow, says one person who writes for the site who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as to not jeopardize their role. According to the writer, each week, freelancers receive an email from an editor with story ideas to write. The emails will request content around trending topics like TV shows or movies. They’ll also link to specific threads on Reddit and other sites that can be rewritten as stories. Sometimes the content comes from inside the house. Writers regularly ask BuzzFeed readers to comment and weigh in on various topics — like being a transracial adoptee or having an out-of-touch boss — and go on to use those responses in future stories.
The work is fairly easy, says the writer. Copying and pasting responses, finding images, and writing a short intro doesn’t take long, and the pay isn’t bad once they get into a rhythm: $100 a post, with the rate sometimes going up if more items were in a list. (BuzzFeed says rates vary depending on the assignment and writer.) Stories based on user-generated content tend to bring in the views, the writer says, but someone is always angry about it — “write your own stories” is a common complaint. When responses from BuzzFeed commenters are slim, they’ll go to Reddit to find related comments to supplement the post.
“It’s not about whether I want my comment featured. It’s the principle behind how it got there.”
BuzzFeed.com now has around 30 staffers, says Jess Probus, senior vice president of editorial, with the classic viral content produced by full-time employees, freelancers, and volunteer community writers. For the full-time staff, nobody’s entire job is curating internet content for BuzzFeed — everyone is expected to be able to do it.
For Redditors, having posts reused by BuzzFeed, TikTokers, or other viral aggregators is so common it’s now a recurring joke. Some users have taken to adding disclaimers at the top of their posts: BuzzFeed, don’t use this without my permission. Others scheme to plant fake threads and answers, reveling in the possibility that BuzzFeed might source and publish *** comments.
Nina, the Reddit user whose comment was pulled for a BuzzFeed story, says that if the outlet had reached out to ask for permission, she would have been “thrilled and very cooperative.”
“It’s not about whether I want my comment featured,” Nina says. “It’s the principle behind how it got there.”
Probus defended the aggregation process, saying BuzzFeed has added more prominent credit to aggregation posts over the years, including using Reddit’s embed features in articles.
“I think there’s sort of a generous misunderstanding of who is extracting value from this content people are posting for free on the platform,” Probus says. “But it’s not the publishers who are curating it, it’s the platforms. And I absolutely understand that that does feel like a complete imbalance of value.”
Reddit itself has responded to the editorial repurposing of its users’ content in a number of ways. Its press kit, for example, includes a 21-page document of media guidelines, which explicitly encourage journalists to ask Reddit users for permission before including their posts in stories. Reddit also has internal teams that work with press to educate outlets on the “best practices” of sourcing from subreddits, Roxy Young, chief marketing officer at Reddit, told The Verge in an email.
Users might feel one way about it, but Reddit, Inc. isn’t hostile to BuzzFeed. Aggregators like BuzzFeed ultimately benefit the platform, says Young. If someone sees a viral BuzzFeed post about a Reddit thread, they might become a new Reddit user.
“Many will come to the platform looking for one thing and then fall into a Reddit rabbit hole of endless knowledge on a given topic — from there, it’s a quick jump to becoming a Reddit regular,” she says.
As time went on, the demand for a constant stream of viral hits took its toll on BuzzFeed’s staff. Staff started out without hard quotas or benchmarks; eventually, metrics-based goals were “firmly” pushed onto editorial, Holderness says, and gaming the algorithms on distribution platforms became central to output.
“There were a lot of folks who were, I think, under a lot of pressure to continuously drive big, steady traffic,” she says. “When you’re asked to do however many posts each week to get however much traffic each week, sometimes you’re just trying to hit a quota.”
Maybe the real problem for BuzzFeed was that they cracked the formula too well. Anyone can repackage Reddit content. Take, for example, Twitter accounts that post screenshots and polls straight from the more ridiculous r/AmItheAsshole and r/relationship_advice Reddit threads — these have more than a million followers combined and regularly go viral. TikTok accounts garner millions of views on videos that consist of screenshots of Reddit posts being “read” aloud by AI text-to-speech software.
BuzzFeed’s homepage looks almost frozen in time: “LOL” and “WIN” section buttons are prominently displayed at the top in yellow and black. An “Internet Finds” page lists trending posts from YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, and other social media sites, filtered through a talky writing style, with pictures and GIFs crammed between sentences — the equivalent of having eyes nowhere and everywhere on the internet at once.
On whether BuzzFeed is still relevant, Probus disagrees with the premise of the question.
BuzzFeed still connects with young people, she says, but the bigger problem is that brands generally have lost the trust of their audience. To counter the shifting power from institutions to individuals, BuzzFeed’s plan is to make writers, curators, and other “creators” a more central part of its structure and mission. It’s a tactic that should sound familiar to anyone who followed BuzzFeed years ago because it was BuzzFeed employees and talent that created a loyal following. One by one, they left or were laid off.
As a former staffer who worked on the business side of the company put it: the BuzzFeed brand just isn’t cool anymore.
“I just feel wistful for early BuzzFeed days. It was a very specific time on the internet and a very specific vibe on the internet,” Holderness says. As we talk, she points to the hoodie draped over the chair she’s sitting on: a branded relic from her time at BuzzFeed.