Anyone looking for reasons why the internet has devolved into a raucous cacophony of clickbait, misinformation, and polarization, which numerous studies now blame for a rise of user isolation and diminished self-worth, could do worse than read Ben Smith’s new book Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral.
The media entrepreneur – previously editor of the now defunct BuzzFeed News, media columnist (briefly) for The New York Times, and now editor/co-founder of the startup Semafor – surely didn’t set out to write such a book. His version of how our online mediaverse came to be is an almost giddy celebration of the pursuit of attention in whatever form. Attention-as-currency, and the goal to get insanely rich on it. Smith presumes as self-evident that attention (traffic) – visits, views, clicks, likes, comments, however they’re measured – is the goal itself, the ultimate prize. A made-you-look mentality, no matter how stupid or inane or manipulative is a superpower above all others.
Smith frames his story around two traffic engineers: Nick Denton, the notorious proprietor of Gawker Media, the online purveyor of snark and bark; and Jonah Peretti, the dweeby co-founder of HuffPost and BuzzFeed. In Smith’s telling, the two are rivals, representing if not polar opposites, at least different fronts in the traffic wars. Denton set out to upend the traditional media establishment because, well, he could, wielding the weapon of viral content – outing celebrity behavior and sexual orientation, graphically describing intimate behavior, and pricking the egos of urban elites. Not out of some notion of greater good or truths that needed to be told, but for the exhilaration of getting an audience.
Peretti, by contrast, an alum of MIT’s Media Lab, was fascinated with traffic as a phenomenon itself, constantly prodding and tweaking and adjusting ways to attract, optimize and shape it. Master of the prank intended only to see if it aroused attention, almost nothing was off-limits as long as it got eyeballs.
Two sides of the same coin.
Peretti was an architect of HuffPost, initially conceived as a left-wing version of the Drudge Report, which, with its stubbornly clunky and stripped-down design, had become a must-read for New York’s media elite. Drudge specialized in screaming headlines and scoops that purported to make the liberal elite look bad. Behind Drudge’s curtain, however, Andrew Breitbart was doing much of the heavy lifting, and Peretti was able to convince him to come aboard HuffPost.
HuffPost (originally called Huffington Post after co-founder Arianna Huffington) immediately made a splash, attracting millions of readers at its launch with headlines that put spin on even the most mundane story. Often those headlines led to stories in other media, but characterized in ways their editors might never have intended. Added to the mix was a coterie of Arianna’s toney celebrity friends, given space to prattle about their favorite topics. As a formula, it worked long enough to be bought for $315 million in 2011 by AOL. At the time, it reported traffic of about 36 million unique visitors per month.
As the site waned, Peretti took his millions and started BuzzFeed, optimized to capitalize on everything he had learned about making people look. Denton ultimately ran afoul of billionaire tech bro Peter Thiel, who financed Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker for publishing a sex tape. The Gawker empire was seized and sold for parts, and Denton slunk off. Tellingly, Smith attributes Denton’s demise not to the ruinous Hogan decision, but to Denton’s losing his killer instinct; he just wasn’t energized by the traffic anymore.
Smith had his own traffic crucible moment. Invited by Peretti to start BuzzFeed News, a site-within-a-site at BuzzFeed to tackle more serious journalism, he created a credible operation that produced some award-winning journalism. But when the infamous Steele dossier, detailing oppo research on Donald Trump, showed up on his doorstep and he was faced with a decision to publish or not, his instinct for traffic won out over concerns about the veracity of details in Steele’s report. The decision, it’s difficult not to conclude, was ratings over truth, attention over service.
Smith’s account of how traffic shaped our media age rings true if one-dimensional. Yes, viral content became the gold standard of success. But he misses the ways in which blogs both deepened and widened the conversation and gave platform to millions who had something to say. And social media, which, yes, at a superficial level, is home to rants and attacks and social preening, but beyond that connects scientists and artists and researchers and experts who are only too happy to connect and share their work. This alt-universe in Smith’s world isn’t worth much as it is largely invisible on the traffic meters. But it has been a game-changer for the way serious ideas are exchanged and surely more consequential than the fluffy memes that so delight the traffic mavens.
One last observation: At one point, BuzzFeed experienced a sudden, precipitous plunge in traffic. The site’s leadership panicked. They finally reached somebody who, upon investigation, discovered that the site’s search record had been inadvertently changed – a typo – and, once restored, the traffic began flowing again. What lesson to take from this? The BuzzFeed content hadn’t changed, but the audience had disappeared. So, were people coming to BuzzFeed because they were seeking out what it was selling? Or were they merely reading BuzzFeed because they were sent there by the algorithms? In Smith’s universe the question is irrelevant.
Publishers spend millions trying to game the system so that platforms send them readers. When the game’s rules change, as they do from time to time, publishers scramble to figure out the new game. The hugely successful site Upworthy was built on its ability to game Facebook’s feed. When Facebook changed the algorithm, Upworthy’s business model suddenly collapsed. The magazine Slate similarly saw a 70 percent drop in its Facebook referrals when the algo changed. He who plays by the algo also dies by it. The take home? On the internet, you’re rewarded by the Gods not for the quality of your content in a marketplace of worth, but your ability to play the algorithmic traffic game, optimized to chase our worst instincts. Is it any wonder we have the internet we have?