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Traffic Jam

Worshipping at the altar of the click

Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral by Ben Smith. 352 pages, Penguin Press. 2023.

The story of the viral internet, as Ben Smith tells it in his new book Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral, begins in 2001 with future BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti in an ill-fitting blazer, waiting to go on the Today show to explain a prank: he had tried to get Nike to make him custom shoes that said “sweatshop” on them, Nike turned him down, and the resulting email thread, when published, set the internet alight. More horseplay ensued, until there seemed to be enough for an entire website: BuzzFeed, a soupy mélange of viral clickbait, personality quizzes, and esoteric internet reporting. Unlike existing media properties, BuzzFeed’s brilliance was that it was specifically reverse engineered to be a site that favored pageviews above content. It didn’t necessarily matter if the content was good, per se. It only mattered if it clicked.

Smith is a smart guy, a good reporter, and exudes an endearing—and enduring—earnestness about the media. As the cofounder and editor-in-chief of the new website Semafor, he’s shown gumption in getting a news organization off the ground in hostile economic times. As the former media columnist for the New York Times, he tried his hand at chronicling downtown New York subcultures and how digital ads are making a comeback (remains to be seen). As the editor in chief of BuzzFeed News, he took an enterprise known for quizzes that told you which Disney character you were and expanded it into a legitimate journalistic juggernaut. In Traffic, oddly, he recounts the industry-reshaping history of viral journalism—mostly at BuzzFeed and Gawker—from a removed perspective, as if he’s convinced he’s a neutral reporter rather than a central protagonist.

I didn’t quite expect this book to be funny—the absurdity of the early aughts internet is enough on its own—but at least that it would be juicy. The untold number of illegal stimulants that went into building the viral internet, the scads of interoffice dick pics, the terrible pay. It’s not, which is disappointing. The lack of juice, however, means that the book doesn’t truly engage with the dirty business of how all this traffic got created in the first place, and who created it.

Perhaps to go there would open up a whole other can of worms, and I suppose the qualities I admire in Ben don’t lend themselves to telling that story. He was a newsroom leader, not a peon shoveling memes into a CMS. And so we get a narrative that reads at once like a plea for David Fincher to option it and a benign mea culpa. Was writing this an act of bravery, or self-delusion? At times I feel like Ben is almost being genuinely contrite, but he ultimately emerges as a cipher, and one who now walks through the world a richer man, seemingly unencumbered by the wrath traffic wrought.

In what is tragic timing for Smith’s book, Peretti announced late last month that BuzzFeed News would be shutting down. “I made the decision to overinvest in BuzzFeed News because I love their work and mission so much,” Peretti wrote in a memo to his staff. “This made me slow to accept that the big platforms wouldn’t provide the distribution or financial support required to support premium, free journalism purpose-built for social media.” Smith, who ran the newsroom from 2011 to 2020, told CNN that the closure “makes [it] really clear the relationship between news publishers and social media is pretty much over.”

Journalism, at its core, is incompatible with traffic; pursuing both at once is a fool’s errand.

So it’s funny that Traffic can at first read like a Peretti hagiography. We’re apprised of his liberal bonafides, the fact that in college “he read Marx and Kant and Freud, and was one of a small number of male teaching assistants in an Introduction to Women’s Studies class.” OK. Smith’s reporting on Gawker founder Nick Denton is more interesting because not only is Denton ingenious, he is evil. As a friend of Nick’s told Ben: “He was famous for not committing to a Friday- or Saturday-night plan unless he could be certain that he alighted upon the best option. As a result, if you ended up at the same bar or party as him, you were left with the sense you were in the right place, which was both reassuring and profoundly irritating.” (One gets the sense Ben has more respect for Nick than Jonah. Weirdly, I couldn’t quite parse his relationship with the latter beyond subject and reporter, even though they worked together for many years.)

While BuzzFeed was a more or less exciting, happy-go-lucky place to have a job in its early days, at Gawker Nick took pleasure in pitting his employees against each other and poking fun at their progressive leanings. In late 2014, an editor wrote Denton a memo urging the overwhelmingly white company, which was by then composed of seven websites, to hire more editors and writers of color, more queer writers, and writers from marginalized backgrounds. Denton, in his typical devil’s advocate fashion, responded that maybe what Gawker needed was intellectual diversity: “Let’s welcome, if not out-and-out racists, then at least the wide array of people with whom a conversation is possible: national greatness conservatives, Burkean Tories and business pragmatists, for instance; Christians and other spiritual people; economic liberals, libertarians and techno-utopians; and black and other social conservatives,” he replied.

Of course, no one at Gawker took him seriously; no Burkean Tories were hired. But that’s pretty much what Smith attempted to do at BuzzFeed, and it didn’t turn out great. In one chapter, he recounts bringing on Benny Johnson, a charmingly poisonous young conservative journalist who got his start at Breitbart and The Blaze, as BuzzFeed’s “viral politics editor.” Smith writes that before he hired Benny in 2013, he thought BuzzFeed was “missing a big piece of American identity. We didn’t have any proud young conservatives, people who could write about what it was like to grow up with guns, say, or to appreciate how the Bush family respected veterans.” To him, “Benny represented . . . an untapped new well of traffic, a new identity to plumb.” Benny also appealed to Smith’s own eyes and ego. “Benny was handsome, clean-shaven, and earnest, and he felt like something new, a conservative writer who spoke the language of memes that young people used to communicate on social media,” he writes. “I couldn’t help but find it flattering when he told me he’d been religiously copying our work for their site.”

Unfortunately, Benny was also copying work for BuzzFeed’s site, and was fired in 2014 for forty-one instances of plagiarism. Despite his proclaimed commitment to journalistic standards, Smith says he at first defended Benny when people began to tweet that he had been lifting from Wikipedia. “I saw it as part of my job as editor; I also thought that Benny’s critics were picking up on minor errors because they didn’t like his politics,” he writes. “And BuzzFeed’s spirit had always involved remixing the best of the internet, sometimes in those early days by ripping it directly off Reddit.”

Smith writes that he allowed his eyes to “skate over” some of Benny’s more alarming output before hiring him, for example, his fixation with the New Black Panther Party. “I hadn’t thought it through,” Smith confesses. (Three years later, Benny was relieved of his post at the right-leaning Independent Journal Review for ethics violations and abusive management behavior. Currently, he oversees the productions department at Turning Point USA, a hyperbolically right-wing nonprofit aimed at indoctrinating teens, where he revels in unadulterated racism and transphobia.)

We all make mistakes, but when it comes to the internet at large, platforming people like Benny under the guise of “intellectual diversity”—isn’t that a large part of why we are where we are today, in a political and media landscape pathologically addicted to “hearing both sides,” even though one is determined to eradicate the other?

The veneration of traffic dragged American politics into a strange place, giving rise to uneasy alliances between the political figures who ginned up clicks and the media organizations that harvested them. In another emblematic passage, Smith recounts a meeting with Steve Bannon at Trump Tower in 2016. Bannon had his own vaunted viral media background as the executive chairman of Breitbart News, and apparently he had some ideas for BuzzFeed. Smith writes, “Bannon and his crew had seen the energy Trump carried, the engagement he’d driven, and attached themselves to it. BuzzFeed, in Bannon’s view, had failed to recognize that Bernie Sanders could generate the same energy, the same engagement. Why hadn’t we all gone for Bernie? he asked me.”

Is it possible that Steve Bannon would have been a better editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News than Ben Smith? Probably not, but it’s a fun thought experiment. “I told Bannon we came from a different journalistic tradition, and we valued it. The answer didn’t satisfy any of us much,” Smith writes. No worries for him, the boss was on his side. “Jonah had sometimes asked the same thing. He, too, saw that the energy was on the militant left, and that our staff’s sympathies—and his own—mostly leaned the same way. But our journalistic scruples, the impulse towards fairness and away from propaganda, sometimes handcuffed our drive for traffic.”

The discordance between Smith telling Bannon that BuzzFeed didn’t cover Bernie Sanders more because of the site’s “journalistic scruples” and Smith defending Benny Johnson against credible accusations of journalistic malpractice—I wonder if our author knows how he is coming off here. Journalism, at its core, is incompatible with traffic; pursuing both at once is a fool’s errand. Peretti may have supported Smith’s obsequiousness to the god of objectivity, but imagining these two in a room talking about media ethics with Steve Bannon—well, that says a lot about who was in charge of things.

I thought a lot about the concept of net good while reading Traffic. In 2020, Ben wrote a column for the Times arguing that Ronan Farrow’s reporting about Harvey Weinstein for The New Yorker “reveals the weakness of a kind of resistance journalism that has thrived in the age of Donald Trump: That if reporters swim ably along with the tides of social media and produce damaging reporting about public figures most disliked by the loudest voices, the old rules of fairness and open-mindedness can seem more like impediments than essential journalistic imperatives.”

Frankly, this is a bad business, and anyone who gets into it is a fool, myself included.

At first, this seemed like an exciting “gotcha.” It is, after all, an industry tradition to quietly revel in a reporter getting raked over the coals for being wrong. The column’s main quibble is that Farrow doesn’t provide any proof that executives at NBC, where he intended to publish the story, decided not to go through with it because they were afraid of being blackmailed by Weinstein. Instead, in the absence of hard sourcing, Farrow relies on “novelistic technique” to convey this point. “Mr. Farrow, for example, describes the facial expressions and physical gestures of NBC executives during his meetings with them, and then deduces dark motives,” Smith writes.

How do we know what we know, and how do we know what we report? All information is filtered through each person’s weird brain, seen through their own kaleidoscope. Does a person on Zoloft interpret information differently than one on Wellbutrin? Do brown eyes see differently than blue? Moreover, reporting on sexual assault requires its own unique skillset; one that has hardly existed in the media until the last decade. The Farrow column sat with me in a sour way. What was the point? His reporting led to positive change: Harvey Weinstein, a convicted rapist who traded professional favors for sex, is in prison. Should we have been more fair to him?

Consider Smith’s criticism of Farrow in contrast with his chapter on the infamous “Dossier,” a tranche of documents compiled by a former British intelligence officer alleging that Donald Trump’s Russian ties went deeper than anyone had previously thought. (And also that he liked to watch people pee during sex.) Mainstream media danced around reporting on the Dossier when it was leaked in late 2016, but BuzzFeed went ahead and published a scan of the entire thing with the warning that it contained “specific, unverified, and potentially unverifiable allegations.” Ben ultimately defends the decision to publish because it was “truth,” even if it couldn’t be verified by, say, a news organization whose purported job it is to verify documents. Although this decision was at perilous odds with a media landscape processed through context collapse, it aligned perfectly with the doctrine of clicks.

Smith admits that perhaps he should have “thought a little more” about how people would “share the document free of any context,” but the ultimate problem was that “the public had lost trust in institutions while, all the while, demanding those same institutions filter the swirl of claims that surround democracy’s biggest decisions.” But it’s hard to say if the public ever had trust in BuzzFeed in the first place, let alone knew what it really was. Gawker, at least, came with a built-in point of view and didn’t care if it was respected by the public at large. No matter how serious the reporting at BuzzFeed, any fuck-up could be reduced to the fact that it was published on the website that also encouraged readers to find their inner potato.

In 2016, BuzzFeed was valued at around $1.7 billion; two years prior, it had turned down an offer from Disney to buy it for a reported $500 million. The dream that undergirded all these traffic-driven operations was always cashing out—but it never really came to pass. Last year, nearly eighty former and current employees sued BuzzFeed over its bungled IPO after they were blocked from taking higher profits from their shares. You can now purchase a share of the company for around fifty cents. Meanwhile, Gawker was financially decimated by Hulk Hogan and Peter Thiel before being purchased by my former boss, Bryan Goldberg, for $1.35 million in 2018, relaunched in 2021 and then shut down again earlier this year. (I was editor of the relaunch of the site. I was also the features editor at Gawker from 2014 to 2015.)

More traffic equaled more money, until it didn’t, and then what? So many websites were dependent on the occult machinations of Facebook and Google algorithms, which could change any day and reduce site visits by millions. Sites that began as lean and nimble operations became buoyed by insane amounts of venture capital and were scaled at an unmanageable pace—BuzzFeed at one point had an Australia bureau. And there was never any plan. There still isn’t. Frankly, this is a bad business, and anyone who gets into it is a fool, myself included. By the time I left Gawker, its parent company, BDG Media, was struggling to figure out how to get views from TikTok and encouraging editors to do more packages around Marvel movies. None of it makes sense, and it’s frankly amazing that the well-being of an entire industry rested—rests!—on a mountain of sand built by jokesters and reactionaries.

In the end, Smith paints Peretti as a kind of tragic figure, although one he is “rooting for.” The vagaries of the workplace were the kind for which Peretti simply wasn’t fit. He became a suit, “and an incompetent suit at that”; he went on record saying that he didn’t think a union was “the right idea” for the company; he had trouble pleasing a “restive” board. Of course, it’s hard to feel terribly sorry for a man whose net worth is likely in the eight figures and recently laid off 15 percent of BuzzFeed’s workforce, but Smith tries his best to gin up some pathos. And although Peretti might go down in history as one of the worst media executives ever, he is still bombing around with his little ideas—BuzzFeed is now using AI to write quizzes and travel reviews in what is indeed a big win for free labor.

As for Smith? “This book has been, for me, a humbling exercise in what I missed, even as I was there,” he writes. If only we could do it all over! At the end of the book, Smith reports that Nick Denton’s tune has changed on the nature of transparency in journalism. “He’d come to think that Gawker’s—and my—version of transparency, of the compulsion of leaks and aggressive reporting, actually produced dishonesty and self-censorship.” What has Ben learned? At Semafor, he’s more or less up to the same tricks—holding court with Tucker Carlson, publishing a straight-faced interview with Marjorie Taylor Greene and a piece that marvels at Vivek Ramaswamy’s tennis skills. I get it, I guess. One of the hardest things in this business is to start a website and expect anybody to notice before the money runs out. The viral internet at least succeeded in accomplishing that.