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Blaspheming BuzzFeed

BuzzFeed isn’t just for listicles anymore, and whoever says otherwise is regurgitating outdated folk wisdom. Or, at least, that’s the prevailing meme ping-ponging around media circles (read: people I follow on Twitter).

It’s true, BuzzFeed has changed. The company has displayed the kind of hockey-stick growth that tempted investors to cut checks for $50 million last summer. And in an attenuated journalistic economy, this has got writers spit-shining their resumes, and showing a new kind of deference towards the company. Articles from BuzzFeed’s News division—now presented under its own vertical on the site, apart from listicles, quizzes, and other viral trifles—are shared online with ecstatic fanfare. In fact, some of them are great, especially reporting on the Ukraine conflict and sexual assault on college campuses.

But it’s also become strangely uncouth to criticize BuzzFeed. When Gawker published an incisive, cutting look at some of BuzzFeed’s more hazily solipsistic essays last month, many responded that it was unfair, or that it was just Gawker-being-Gawker. A cheeky and kind of dumb animated listicle on Fusion that same week entitled “20 Reasons You Shouldn’t Work at BuzzFeed” was received as blasphemy. How dare another well-moneyed media startup criticize a competitor (unless it’s an easy target like Business Insider’s Henry Blodget)?

The Fusion post was a weak shot across the bow, guilty of the same obsolete reductionism of many of BuzzFeed’s critics. But then Fusion went ahead and embarrassed itself further. The site appended a yellow “fail” balloon (just like one might find on BuzzFeed) to the post, changed the headline to “A day in the life at BuzzFeed?” and added this note: “We changed the headline on this post because we realize the previous version was lame. We love our friends at BuzzFeed and the work they do every day. We do think Ben Smith would look good with a mustache.” No haters indeed. But also: gross.

What is BuzzFeed? is a great metaphysical challenge for industry watchers. The answer is whatever confirms your preconceived notions of BuzzFeed and new media. The only verity about the company is its rapid change and growth; it is very much a tech startup. This has given the company a Heisenbergian uncertainty: we can’t always tell where it stands right now, but we might have a sense of where it’s going—namely, wherever money, attention, and the tech zeitgist are heading. (I’ve been guilty of my own false prognostications. One chapter in my book—written in 2013, revised in 2014, published next month—considers a version of BuzzFeed that has molted several times since then. Therein, surely, lies some miserable parable about the production processes of legacy and digital media.)

Despite BuzzFeed’s rapid ascension into a place for serious journalism, it’s been less than eight months since the site’s editor-in-chief defended Benny Johnson, whose serial plagiarism seemed like the most forgivable of his venalities, as “one of the web’s deeply original writers.” It’s been less than a year since BuzzFeed began secretly deleting thousands of posts. (Eventually in an interview, CEO Jonah Peretti justified the mass-deletion as part of the pivot from a tech to a media company.) Despite having found religion on journalistic ethics, it wasn’t long ago that BuzzFeed was proudly setting the standard for what makes a mindless viral factory, one buttressed by sponsored content catering to corporate advertisers. If you click anywhere on the site other than News, that past incarnation is very much present, and thriving.

That’s why when I recently saw a BuzzFeed News editor earnestly fret on Twitter that an incorrect photo caption was “a huge mistake on our part,” I couldn’t help but laugh. (It’s okay, dude! There are still people in your office publishing at least a dozen listicles about a guy dancing in a shark costume.)

This awkward juxtaposition of solemn striving and pop-culture bacchanalia reflects both where BuzzFeed is and where it’s going. On its news side, it’ll continue to grow as a place for mawkish essays, strong public interest reporting, and solid longform narratives. But this prestige journalism unit will only be—at least to industry mandarins—the most visible arm of a massive content purveyor, one whose true strength lies in blasting highly shareable material to millions of bored office workers and teens through its own app, partnership deals with big portals, and media made directly for social platforms like Snapchat.

The head of the company’s video arm, BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, said at an event on Tuesday that the videos are bringing in an extraordinary 950 million views a month. Given the premium rates drawn by video advertising, one could easily see this eclipsing the company’s written content—especially after the first BuzzFeed TV show or movie, one that you’ll probably be able to watch wherever there’s a screen. (Being wherever there’s a screen is the company’s particular form of genius.) A few years from now, when all content feels like sponsored content, and is consumed on a rotating cycle of apps, websites, and screens, BuzzFeed will become the next MTV.

By then, there’ll be some other parvenu to pander to. In the meantime, BuzzFeed, and its well-meaning defenders, should be able to tolerate our slings and arrows.