BuzzFeed Buzzes Onto the Scene

What constitutes as news media in the modern day? With the advent of the technological age, many traditional definitions such as this have been thrown into question.  Jonah Peretti, founder of BuzzFeed has attempted to answer that question.

BuzzFeed is an upcoming name in the world of internet news and media. What is it about BuzzFeed that has led to its recent success, and most of all, is BuzzFeed worth my time as a news consumer, or is it nothing more than listicles and memes?

Peretti is the founder, CEO, and evil mastermind behind BuzzFeed. Peretti graduated from MIT’s prestigious Media Lab, so he is no stranger to viral media. Peretti’s inspiration, like many internet moguls, began in a moment of procrastination.

In 2001, rather than work on his graduate thesis Peretti spent his time emailing a Nike sales rep about how he couldn’t brand ‘sweatshop across his NikeiD custom sneakers.

Pereti went on to forward the conversation to ten friends, who then continued forwarding until the Nike Sweatshop Emails multiplied and went viral. So much so that in six weeks Peretti found himself debating a Nike spokesman on the Today show.

This first experience of dipping his feet into viral media left a lasting impression on Peretti. Cameron Marlow, a friend of Peretti, who at the time was writing his Ph.D. on viral phenomenon challenged him to replicate the viral success. Marlow didn’t believe such a thing could be engineered.

BuzzFeed, however, is designed with that express purpose in mind. Everything about the site from the layout to the rating system, and even the way adverts are implemented, is put into place to ensure that the content most consumed continues to proliferate, in a similar vein to genes, and how the strongest genes work out to survive, the BuzzFeed system ensures the best content will as well.

Underlying BuzzFeed’s polished exterior is a vast data-driven apparatus designed to figure out just what makes you tick and most of all click. Through this, content and adverts are personally tailored to you, regardless of whether you knew you liked them or not.

Due to this nature, BuzzFeed’s signature listicle flourishes. In which funny, cute, shocking or generally interesting information is presented in a list.

Users of the site are also able to produce content, once they have made a BuzzFeed account, as well view similar contest they would be interest in, and track the growth of the content they produce. These combine to give users an incentive to post, keep posting, and post better content, proliferating the virality of the site as a whole in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In this way BuzzFeed is  very similar to Reddit. Therefore avid users of Reddit may wish to give BuzzFeed a try. Similar demographics may be partially responsible for the sites mutual appeal and design. These sites garner the greatest audience from tech-savvy young adult males between 25-34. In a 2013 Google Ad Planner estimate it was found that 59% of Reddit users fit that demographic, and 68% connected from the US.

The success of this style, I believe, is attributed to the listicle’s interesting or otherwise emotionally yielding information, its quick consumption rate, as well as ease of information consumption. As each item on a list is usually an image, gif, or video with a sentence or two describing it.

BuzzFeed is also altering the vein of contemporary media through their implementation of what is known as “native advertising.” The adverts on BuzzFeed are engineered to be just as clickable and enticing as all of the other content on the site. You won’t find banner or pop-up ads  anywhere on BuzzFeed. This change in advertising forms has disturbed the status-quo of a long-standing $500 billion industry.

Here in the graphic depicted below you see that rather than providing a traditional ad, The Fifth Estate has advertised by creating content for the site. In this case a listicle featuring funny tweets under #hackerlife to  stir up excitement for the tech-thriller about WikiLeaks.

Instead, companies pay to publish content on the site. This content may be longform articles, but tend to be listicles, often unrelated to the company, meant to garner viral attention. Major advert sponsors include Geico, GE, VW, and Pepsi.

This begs the question of whether BuzzFeed is worth my time as a news consumer, or is it simply listicles and memes designed to amass shares and hits without depth? This question can only be answered by the person asking it themselves.

The listicle does fulfill its role of delivering funny, cute, shocking, or otherwise interesting information, and it does so in a very effective manner. While the information is basic at best, it is still fundamentally informative and is usually assisted through a visual aid attached to each list item. However, many would argue that regardless of how informative or charming these lists are, they are not news.

For these reasons I would not venture to say that BuzzFeed constitutes a news source, or at least the majority of its content, as BuzzFeed does contain traditional articles and editorials, known as longform. At the same time I would not argue that BuzzFeed has no worth, just because it is not “serious” journalism.

Rather it is for that very reason BuzzFeed is unique, and worth a look in this writer’s opinion. BuzzFeed is our site, and it is very telling as say a social experiment, demonstrating an accurate depiction and commentary of the “internet and ADHD” generation which is often ascribed to today’s youth.

So what about BuzzFeed’s articles and editorials? BuzzFeed’s content, regardless of whatever glossy generalizations are made, does span a spectrum from the novel list to longform content we are used to seeing from news sources. Though the longform on the site hardly finds the success of the quickly-consumed journalistic snack food of the lists, often times one does break out on the BuzzFeed “Hot This Week” charts.

However, with BuzzFeed’s popularity explosion in recent years and commercial success, they have moved to hire more journalists to produce more traditional and longform news media on the site.

It may also be noted that the Buzz Feed model lends itself to users staying on the site and always clicking the next appeitizing listicle in the corner of the one you’re currently viewing. Because of this perpetuation of time spent on the site, through the quick consumption rate, this can cause the listicles to bring traffic to the lonfgorm content as well.

Does Peretti intend to build a serious and gripping journalism source, built upon the financial capital amassed through the quasi-journalistic listicles and other entertainment focused content.

I do not believe this move to hire more journalists will bring about a shift in BuzzFeed’s take on the content of their site, for many reasons.

Namely, BuzzFeed is meant to be Peretti’s experiment in the manufacturing of memes and viral content. Peretti, to a degree, does not care about bringing the news to uninformed and eager masses. BuzzFeed is a thriving Darwinistic society in which only the strongest memes can survive and proliferate on the site.

As long as current trends continue, I do not see a drastic shift to traditional longform exploding on the site. It simply does not lend itself to the model, and Peretti does not mind either. Peretti was also part of the team that founded Huffington Post, where any of his appetite for “actual” journalism can be satiated.

Also consider if it’s a smart move for BuzzFeed to switch to longform. This Forbes study found that over the course of two years BuzzFeed’s unique average, or the average unique user rate of a site, quintupled from approximately 4,000 to nearly 20,000.

Meanwhile competitive traditional news sites either remained stagnant or decreased slightly. With the exception, ironically, of Huffington Post.

BuzzFeed has, in more ways than one, completely flipped the world of journalism on its head. Peretti changed how we view and consume news and the role of adverts in media as well. Competition is watching BuzzFeed much like the British over the newly independent colonists. Will this social experiment with virality continue to thrive, or be crushed under its own weight, and the nature of its own creation?

Personally, I look forward to the future of BuzzFeed. I believe it will continue to thrive, reach peak, and then decline much like sites like Facebook, which seemed to perpetually be a pillar of social media. In this business nothing is permanent, but what attitudes and conventions will BuzzFeed change on its way up and out? Only time will tell.

The revolutions Peretti’s made in the way we consume journalism, what journalism is, and how adverts are implemented will surely influence the competitors, the yet-to-be starry-eyed pioneers of the industry to be, and most of all the general population.

Again only time will tell if the path Peretti has blazed and the trails he’s staked that detour from traditional journalism and advertising will take root. The idea of seeing a listicle presented on a CNN live news broadcast seem completely radical, and perhaps rightly so, but news sources have already taken action in incorporation list-based formats of disclosing information. Such as this Fox News article about ObamaCare.

Prosperity appears to be the only thing on BuzzFeed’s horizon, but when the business model you employ is based on people behaving randomly who can really say what the future holds.

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