“So what’s it like working for BuzzFeed?” the girl asked me. We were at a bar—not the nicest one, but the most convenient.
The question was a stake to the heart. I sipped my seltzer with lime (I don't drink alcohol) to hide whatever emotion I felt at the time – exasperation, embarrassment, both maybe.
“I don't know. I don't work for BuzzFeed.” The words crashed through the table.
“Oh,” she jolted her body back in surprise. “I only went on a date with you because I thought you worked for BuzzFeed ...”
I wanted to yell, “Did you miss the dozen or so HUGE DISCLAIMERS on all my posts that say, 'Hey, this poster doesn't work here so if they post something unpopular (like an anti-Planned Parenthood list), don't try to hate on BuzzFeed's journalistic street cred. We're not responsible for them; they're an unpaid plebeian.' Did you not see all that?”
But I didn't say those things. I laughed it off — which is what I wish I could've done when I saw a recent letter a woman sent to Choire Sicha's “Concessionist” advice column series on the Awl. The woman (probably a HuffPost writer from what she said, or maybe Mashable?) wrote in complaining of existential malaise over not working for digital media's hottest property and not being part of media-Twitter's elite. The media answered with scorn, laughter and befuddlement. But is that really how we should've reacted? As someone who contributed frequently to BuzzFeed and interviewed for an editorial fellowship there in 2013, I'm not so sure.
My own BuzzFeed story started in 2012. I worked as an on-contract editor/administrator/writer for Bleacher Report's MMA vertical. I remember seeing several top writers and editors discussing something called BuzzFeed. Media industry sites all said they had hired a legitimate reporter in Ben Smith and that sites like BuzzFeed who adopted the B/R model—content slaves churning out clickbait to subsidize the legitimate writers and reporters—would rule the entire media world before long. I had never heard of BuzzFeed before. A quick Google search whisked me away into a land of media obsessively tailored to twitch my click finger. I probably opened at least 30 tabs on my first visit to BuzzFeed. I fell into the clickhole. I wouldn't emerge for over a year.
I could only think one thing after the initial wave of viral euphoria wore off: This site is going to take over the world.
“BuzzFeed? The website of stupid cat GIFs becoming the most successful Internet media company? That'll be the day.”
I didn't listen to the critics. I kept reading the site constantly. Then I started reading about the site. I read about Matt Stopera's penchant for viral content. I read about Jonah Peretti's history with viral media, dating all the way back to a Nike sneaker that never was.
Then I started writing for the site as an unpaid contributor. I created over 250 posts, and my work appeared in a popular anti-BuzzFeed YouTube video. One of my lists even helped give credence to a BuzzFeed-Koch brothers conspiracy theory.
Why did I do it? I'm not even sure, in retrospect. Perhaps I possessed the desire to be an early adopter of a start-up I perceived to be the future of the Internet writing/journalism business. “Hitch your wagon to a star,” as they say. And despite the criticism the site gets for some of the content it publishes, the name does count for something. The letter to the Awl mentioned New York City's status-obsessed culture. What's more status-obsessive than only going on a date with someone because you think they work for a hot media start-up/burgeoning media empire? Maybe she wanted to date me so she could get a job there at some point? I have no idea — but it doesn't sound too outlandish.
Or maybe I was in awe of that infotainment lifestyle. At most places, being a “Real Journalist™” means layoffs, long hours, low pay and coffee so bad you have to go on strike. Being an infotainment writer/content creator/curator/[insert tired euphemism for trash Internet page-view cretin] means working in a gorgeous office with tremendous perks. Sure, maybe you don't feel fulfilled, but who cares? You get free swag (OMG, LOL, WIN stickers all over your laptop – can't have all of Brooklyn NOT knowing you work for BuzzFeed). Tiny horses and famous Internet cats (ugh) visit your office. You meet celebrities. Celebrities take your quizzes. The president of the United States name-drops your website at the White House Correspondents Dinner — or, as the Awl's letter-writer mentioned, uses a selfie-stick during an interview with your website and sets the Internet aflame.
That's how powerful infotainment/viral content is. #TheDress will likely be part of American culture longer than The Case for Reparations. Yeah, that's unbelievably depressing, but why wouldn't you want to be on the winning side? What incentive is there to write long-form gold when the world cherishes page-view pyrite?
So I started posting. Not because I wanted to be a writer, but because I wanted to live a lifestyle that may or may not have been a veneer — an image carefully crafted to dupe insecure writers like me into making free content. Because I wanted to see numbers go up. Because I thought having these things would make me feel good.
I remember the first post I made that got pushed to the front page of BuzzFeed dot com, the website.
“Your post, The Cutest Mollusks on the Internet, has been accepted by our community team and is getting extra promotion around our site,” the automatic email from BuzzFeed said. “Use your Viral Dashboard to track the viral spread of your posts, or go directly to the stats page for this post.”
The one I got moments later was even better. It informed me the editors liked my post enough to push it to the front page.
“I was on the front page of BuzzFeed,” I thought in disbelief. Even more exciting was checking the post's Viral Dashboard. The Viral Dashboard was an analytics breakdown. You could see how much traffic the post generated, and it broke the traffic down by every single referral source.
It didn't take long for me to get hooked. I posted as often as I could, becoming a page-view addict in the process. Virality is the ultimate high, but the shortest one. The numbers always have to keep going up. I kept posting, seeing how I could spin tired images, worn-out memes and simple everyday occurrences into Facebook feed pollution that brought in the almighty click – LIFE HACK: Did you know setting your alarm clock helps you get up earlier? I Filtered the Interesting Information from the Saved by the Bell IMDB Page So You Don't Have to!
Eventually someone at BuzzFeed took notice of my work.
I remember the train ride to the city, the walk to the office, what the buildings surrounding BuzzFeed HQ looked like, the tiny elevator inside the building. What I remember most is how bright the inside of their office was—grossly incandescent. It didn’t feel like an office. And I even got to sit in the “Lil Bub” conference room during the interview. For a guy who, at the time, was a massive Internet culture mark, that was huge.
I thought I aced the interview. I went home gleeful, but after a second interview over the phone, I received a call a few weeks later starting with “Unfortunately.”
And I'd be lying if I said it didn't hurt a little bit. Getting denied from any job hurts, but imagine if you almost got a gig with the New England Patriots right when Tom Brady started – before the franchise exploded and became a dynasty – only to be told you weren't good enough and then wind up on the New York Jets. Kind of what happened to me. B/R shredded my contract after the Turner buyout. And then I missed out on the BuzzFeed gravy train. I wound up stuck at a radiology office gig that barely paid the bills while trying to piece together why I started writing on the Internet in the first place.
Hating yourself is wrong, although being sad your career isn't where you want it to be is OK and even normal. Apparently most people on media-Twitter have never had a career setback in their life – but when you have a massive network of industry contacts (or, for the lucky ones, a not-insignificant amount of family financial support) how could you? The media's reactions to this woman's letter ranged from amusement to outright aggression. A lot of Internet pointing and laughing, along with the media's characteristic overwhelming snark. One commenter, writer Freddie DeBoer, even (I hope jokingly) suggested the woman commit suicide.
As they say in Internet parlance, what the actual fuck?
Yeah, assuming this wasn't some kind of Horse e-Books-level chicanery, this writer's apparent obsession with BuzzFeed is unhealthy. An obsession with any one goal is unhealthy. But helping this person doesn't entail laughing, patting each other on the back and going, “Hey, look at this jerk-off who's clearly not doing well mentally or career-wise right now!”
I planned on going into detail on the media's stance on this poor woman's note, but Noah Berlatsky – a Salon contributor and author – summed it up on Twitter and in a follow-up article on Splice Today better than I could.
The correct answer to that letter is, yes, the media is debased and awful and cliquish; that's true of many industries, but this one too.
— Noah Berlatsky (@hoodedu) March 8, 2015
Succeeding, here and elsewhere, is often about luck. Do your best, and try not to tear yourself up if you don't succeed in all your dreams. — Noah Berlatsky (@hoodedu) March 8, 2015
I don't know; advice columns, reality television — I know mocking people in pain is the American way. It still makes my stomach hurt.
— Noah Berlatsky (@hoodedu) March 8, 2015
And on Splice Today, he wrote:
And what advice does Sicha offer her? He tells her that she's broken, lazy, and talentless. "No one should feel this way about anything basically ever. Certainly not anything that has a paycheck attached to it," he sneers, before telling her that Mallory Ortberg works harder than she does. Is BuzzFeed "not impressed with you? You must not be very impressive, because some real fucking idiots work there!" he exclaims. Because, after all, David Brooks works for the NYT, ergo anyone who does not work for the NYT is not very impressive.
All of which seems bizarrely out of proportion. Why is it a horrible to want to work for BuzzFeed? Why is it a horrible to envy other writers? Why is it a horrible to feel like the media is cliquish and awful, and feel despair that your job and industry kind of suck? Is it so wrong to be ambitious, and then disillusioned? Is it so wrong to have dreams—even small-scale dreams—and then fail to achieve them?
The answer to all those questions is yes. It’s despicable to be ambitious, and feel envy, and have petty dreams that you fail to achieve. America adores success; we honor, not just heroes, but superheroes—we want to be strong and swift and do great deeds and hit bad guys with such force that they fly backwards through multiple buildings, and/or change some distant regime from evil to democratic with the whoosh of a single drone. Power and goodness are tied so closely together that we cheerfully conflate one for the other, which is what allows Sicha to assume that this woman is lazy and talentless because some editors at BuzzFeed don't want to work with her.
The media industry is capricious, insensitive, uncaring, selfish, vacuous, arbitrary and hollow. We like to pretend it's all about discussing powerful ideas and advancing humankind's understanding of the world through storytelling, but most of the time that's bullshit. Journalism is professional wrestling. The latter is spectacle masquerading as sport, the former is entertainment masquerading as news (or Jon Stewart DESTROYING things). And in both industries, backroom politics, wheeling and dealing, and obsequious networking (read: ass-kissing) can and often does determine the fate of careers.
It's strange that "Mean Girls" is so popular in Internet culture because the entire media industry is full of Regina Georges, not Cady Herons. No, you can't sit with us. Just look at the way Sicha casually dismisses sponsored content writers – the human beings who make media profitable – in his answer. We on the editorial side are better than most plebeians, especially ad-ops scum, and we're not afraid to let the world know!
That's perhaps the biggest con in the Internet media. We all pretend we're liberal and egalitarian, but when someone presents with a career-related problem in our industry, the answer — like Sicha's to this woman — is always terrifyingly conservative: “Fuck you. Bootstraps.”
Despite peddling this shoddy advice, they're all smart enough to know hard work is worthless (if we wanted hard work we wouldn't be in an industry where copy-pasting most of an article and putting “h/t” at the bottom is not only acceptable but common). For the most part, media insiders hire from their very small (often rich, often white) network. And if you're not rich, white, preferably male, well-connected or blessed by the genetic dice roll to be gifted with words to the point where you can overcome these hurdles, you better be lucky.
But when I was a BuzzFeed contributor, I hadn't realized all this yet. I was a naive postgrad. I thought Internet writers were amiable and morally superior. I thought hard work never went unrewarded. I thought writing was a real-life version of "Dead Poets Society" (LOL), not a glorified carny freak show — “Step right up and see the ONE TWEET/GIF/IMAGE that sums up a centuries-old issue!”
So I kept making lists, hoping something would come of my hard work until one day I sat down in the middle of compiling a list and asked myself, “Why am I doing this?”
“To get traffic,” I answered.
“So that I can do what?” I replied.
“Get a job at BuzzFeed,” I said.
“If they haven't hired you after 250 posts, they're not hiring you,” I countered.
“Then I'm making lists so I can get a job at another content monster like HuffPost,” I stated.
“So you can do what?”
“So you can do what?”
“Get more traffic.”
“So you can do what?”
The absurdity of the Internet's page-view hamster wheel became apparent to me. What was the point of pursuing page views for the sake of page views? To make billionaire VC investors even richer? To help the millionaire founder and CEO sell their self-help book? To entertain the joy-deprived office worker or the Facebook-reading carbon blobs for five seconds before something shiny catches their attention and they click away? To draw in ad revenue? To subsidize better writers?
If someone at BuzzFeed reads this and offers me a job to write the stuff I was writing back then, I would say no (unless it was for significantly more money, of course) because I don't really see what's so great anymore about writing stuff like “Which Friends Character Is Your Penis.” I don't want my articles to have 17 words in them. Some people are OK with that — I used to be, too — but I'm not anymore.
Dear anonymous woman who wrote this article, assuming you're a real person, here's a different answer to your problem:
Reevaluate why you want to write. Reevaluate why you want to be popular.
I'm super-fortunate in that I've accomplished a pretty decent amount of life goals. One of them was actually to get a job like the one I have today. And do you know what happened to me when I started working here?
Nothing. I still had tons of trouble sleeping at night due to anxiety. I still felt depressed a lot of the time. And I still needed to go to therapy. I thought all these problems would go away once I got my dream job, but they didn't. That's not to say I don't love my job (I do). The lesson is that landing your dream job in media will be among the least important things you do with your life. There's stuff outside of Twitter and NYC media culture and lists and traffic and sponsored content and all the rest of it. Read a book. Maybe try writing one.
But also, try talking to a mental health professional. We stigmatize this, but something external (like a job) can't fix internal thought processes that aren't working properly. Also: Unfollow everyone on Twitter. Muting half of Twitter (and blocking the other half) was the best decision I ever made. Twitter, specifically media-Twitter, is an echo chamber of weapons-grade snark, gloating and jokes. It only exists so people like us can compile “Twitter reacts to ...” articles, and so privileged white people can show their liberal street-cred by penning viral tweets about social issues (while they probably have an intern pick up their dog's shit).
To borrow from Noah Berlatsky again:
But as a start, maybe we, as writers or workers, can try feeling solidarity with, rather than contempt for, people who find alienating work really alienating. Working for BuzzFeed, as the woman writing that letter pretty clearly knows, isn't actually heaven. But the hope for work that’s satisfying, secure, rewarding and meaningful — that's not contemptible. That's a dream worth dreaming, for writers and for everyone else.
Anonymous Awl woman, your future doesn't need to be rehashed DIY listicles, quizzes and “content” if you don't want it to be. Your future can be a blank word document and a blinking cursor.
This piece has been corrected.