BuzzFeed, the prosperous and successful New York-based website geared toward millennials, is respectable and likeable in many ways. It is a competitor of Gawker, though it dwarfs us in its size and reach, and we take interest in reporting on its foibles and successes.
The story of BuzzFeed, as told even in critical news stories and defensive internal memos, is one of progress or even redemption. Founder Jonah Peretti and editor-in-chief Ben Smith eagerly confess that the site was originally a distribution plant for shareable crap, no matter how meaningless or parasitic said crap might have been. Now, it has come to public understanding that its true purpose is to be a journalistic enterprise, that the work it produces is journalism, and it has hired an impressive array of impeccable editors, writers, and reporters—even an ex-professor. Last year it submitted entries to be considered for the Pulitzer Prize.
This respect lasts until you read it. Or until you read the pieces it sends ricocheting around the social web. My usual BuzzFeed reading is restricted to the works of a few acquaintances, whose posts I enjoy greatly. But on Jan. 21, three viral pieces—much talked about, in a positive manner, on Twitter—made it into my browser. They were what the new, improved BuzzFeed is proud of, and they were not good. I will discuss them here.
"Are you wearing makeup?" My regular bartender, Hugh, looks at me incredulously as he hands over a beer and a shot.
"Yeah, what do you think?" I throw back the whiskey.
Here we have a familiar character in BuzzFeed books editor Isaac Fitzgerald, an impetus for my colleague Tom Scocca's essay "On Smarm." Fitzgerald has been up to great things since his arrival in New York, like contributing to an essay collection about living in New York a few months after he moved here and, in this most recently published piece, writing the line: "Makeup isn't a silly hat or an ill-chosen shirt… it's your face."
For this project, Fitzgerald modified his usual drag-king gear (beard, flannel, boots) and tried on a different sort of costume. The objective of Fitzgerald's aesthetic undertaking seems to be that he has taken on the burden of wearing makeup... to see what it is like... to... be... a woman? To be different? To suffer? To have soft skin? On Day 5 of applying ever-escalating amounts of cosmetics, he gets called a faggot, after getting drunk and stumbling into a stranger, i.e. doing an asshole straight-guy thing while incidentally wearing a fully made-up face. The experiment is muddled for everyone involved, including the person who calls him a faggot.
There is no point to a piece such as this. In the tradition of
Black Like Me and the first reel of Mel Gibson's What Women Want, it is stuntertainment at its worst: doing something a large swath of the population does every day as if it's a remarkable act. "Brave Man Goes Where No Man Has Gone Before—Takes the Bus to Work For a Week—Here's What He Learned." Or: "Here's What I Learned From Wearing Pants For a Week" (from the archives, written in the '20s, by a female journalist).
It's easy to write this sort of thing, and cheap (in BuzzFeed's case, all the makeup was furnished to them). It's writing about yourself, but with an obtrusive twist to focus on. What's harder is doing reporting on real things that happen in the lives of other people, or writing honestly and bravely about something that has happened to you that could be of help to readers. That takes maturity and patience, which are two things missing from this article.
At the end of the experiment (which is peppered with numerous mentions of Fitzgerald's girlfriend, to remind the readers that yes—he's straight), our author reveals he doesn't like makeup. The straight white man remains the straight white man. Women continue to wear makeup. Nothing is learned.
On the cover of the February issue of Vanity Fair, Rosamund Pike gives her best icy blue-eyed Grace Kelly. The cover's intro — "From Bond Girl to Gone Girl to 2015's It Girl" — is banal: Pike's beauty here is the real draw.
BuzzFeed's Anne Helen Petersen writes about celebrity gossip, a fine topic. In a former life, Petersen was a professor, and her writing does not belie this fact: Her tone oscillates between condescension—presuming that her readers need historical definition and context for irrelevant facts—and misguided conviction: saying things outright that might seem like opinion or analysis but are simply incorrect.
Her most recent piece, about the blurry definition of an "It girl" in the mainstream media over the last century or so, reads much like a term paper, with hoary references to the rhetoric of choice and the rise of postfeminism not grounded in fact. In order to write authoritatively on a topic that is not convincingly based in reality, Petersen attempts to mask her banal opinions under an academic facade: since she has her Ph.D. in this stuff, she is automatically correct. But the problem is that she's not. Take this passage about Chloe Sevigny from the "It girls" essay:
Sevigny wasn't beautiful, exactly, or sexy, per se; she was different, and indifferent, and that's what made her It. Sevigny's It-ness manifested a particular sort of abrasive, even erudite hipness. So much about her seemed to scream "fuck you, I contain multitudes," yet the profile attempts, as profiles must, to unite that multiplicity under a single theme: It-ness. In so doing, the New Yorker transformed an unruly woman like Sevigny, with her nontraditional looks and unfamiliar club-kid ways, into a digestible rhetorical pile of It.
Petersen is referring here to a 1994 profile of Sevigny in the New Yorker by Jay McInerney. The profile was indeed, as Petersen describes it, seminal: It put Sevigny on the map; it made her a low-grade celebrity at the age of 19 (mind you, McInerney was already on the map. And you need someone on the map to put you on the map). Petersen's argument that Sevigny "wasn't beautiful, exactly, or sexy, per se, she was different," is a reach when you consider that Sevigny was a thin, blue-eyed, blonde-haired teenager from Darien, Connecticut who came to New York City to act and model.
But to Petersen's main point, Sevigny's "It-ness" was in no way intrinsic to the actress, something apart from her public image. It was manufactured, like all things having to do with the Downtown-to-Hollywood axis of fame. Petersen's reading is worrisomely wide-eyed for a critic of celebrity culture. Jay McInerney writing in the New Yorker was not "transforming" Sevigny into anything. He was participating in her ongoing branding and creation—there is no "multiplicity" at which for Petersen to point. Chloe Sevigny, in 1994, was a dumb scenester teenager from Darien, and McInerney masterfully placed her in the cultural context of the time.
I become more skeptical about Petersen's credibility when she reaches further back into history to defend her shapeshifting thesis. In writing about the journalist Dorothy Thompson as a potential "It girl," Petersen says: "Thompson was a former suffragette and what my granddad would call a total pistol: stubborn and aggressive; sexy not for her body, but her mind."
Poor Thompson, reduced to a crass physical description and with an epitaph from Petersen's grandfather to boot. The woman who interviewed Hitler (and was later barred from Germany by the Führer) and wrote one of the best Harper's articles of all time really deserves better. However, Petersen's description of Thompson is not what is most alarming, but her posthumous appellation of the journalist as an "It girl" under her gelatinous definition of the term: "In the 1940s, however, 'It girl' took on a new valence: a smart woman, usually one of few in her field, who played by men's rules with wit, cunning, and style," Petersen writes, introducing Thompson. But including Thompson on her list is just wrong.
Thompson was profiled in the New Yorker in 1940 by Margaret Case Harriman; the piece was indeed called "It Girl." But that's because "It" was the nickname Thompson's husband, the journalist Sinclair Lewis, gave to her, due to her proclivity to talk about nothing but international affairs (she was one of the few Western journalists to report from Nazi Germany, and worked from Europe for much of her adult life). Harriman explained:
She is sometimes a difficult guess because of such proclamations, and because scarcely any talk that is not concerned with the international situation interests here. Her husband, Sinclair Lewis, has a name for the international situation as it relations to Dorothy; he calls it 'it'… Sometimes, dropping in for a friendly visit, he waits alertly in the hall, listening to the buzz of voices from the living room, where Miss Thompson is talking to Vincent Sheean, Raymond Gram Swing, John Gunther, or other cronies. When one of these friends wanders into the hall, Lewis corners him. 'What's she talking about—it?' he asks. If the friend nods, Mr. Lewis tiptoes away.
Yes, Thompson was an outlier in her field in terms of gender, but she is an "It girl" of popular persuasion only in Petersen's mind. Petersen acknowledges that Thompson doesn't exactly fit into her over-arching thesis:
Lewis referred to the "international situation" (the burgeoning conflict in Europe) in relation to Thompson as "It," thereby rendering her the It girl. It's a play on the term, but it fostered a connotation of uniqueness, even brashness, that clings to contemporary uses of the phrase.
Petersen should know better. She's doing a lot more here than "clinging" to the contemporary use of the phrase—she's bending facts to fit a murky thesis. Thompson would not approve.
It's clear Petersen cares about her topic of choice greatly. But her arguments, perhaps still too fiercely rooted in a more forgiving academic context, suffer from a fundamental misunderstanding of how the media works and rely too heavily on loosely sourced historical blind spots. Clearly, the target audience for her pieces are those who want to read about celebrity and gossip—which are available in ample supply elsewhere on BuzzFeed—but feel superior to both while doing so. It's a neat kind of pseudo-intellectualism that the site's readers and editors seem to love, but it doesn't stand up to close inspection.
I have recently started to pause before responding. This is new for me. I'm starting to think this pause might be the most important moment in the conversation.
Every now and then some Bible verses pop up on BuzzFeed. It's curious—why are there Gif-illustrated passages from Ephesians next an article called "19 Movie Monsters That Look Like Penises And Vaginas"? I'm all for the democratic disbursement of content. I work at Gawker! I take the high with the low, and I love that contemporary websites are more and more able to fund high-octane reporting off of mindless, highly trafficked content.
But more offensive to my sensibilities than, say, an article on penis and vagina monsters is Christian content on an otherwise secular website. It would be one thing if these pieces were informed by the writer's Christianity—sure. Having a plurality of voices is wonderful. But on BuzzFeed, these articles are more or less in the vein of straight-up Christian publishing, not too far afield from the work of Colton Burpo.
The Biblical content comes under the byline of a writer and graphic artist named Nathan Pyle, whose writerly aesthetic is less C.S. Lewis than the greeting card aisle at Duane Reade. His past articles have included an illustrated submarine ride into racism and what he thinks about when he prays. Simplicity is his bailiwick.
In his piece from last Wednesday, Pyle discovered how to talk to other humans. He writes, with animated illustrations: "I have recently started to pause before responding. This is new for me. I'm starting to think this pause might be the most important moment in the conversation." Next slide: "I like to my imagine my view of the world is always obscured by a tinted box. I can't see clearly because of this box. It is my own self-interest." It goes on. In short: Other humans have other perspectives, and listening to them is good. Presumably these are lessons some people are learning from BuzzFeed.
BuzzFeed is extremely wealthy. It received a $50 million investment from venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz last August, valuing the company at $850 million dollars; late last year it was projecting $120 million in revenue. Less easy to reckon with is the company's store in "prestige," the measure that earns a media outlet respect from other media outlets and the people whose opinions are formed by those media outlets—people often in a position to make decisions about where and how to spend advertising money, if not people who are in search of media properties to purchase themselves.
Monstrous raw traffic figures like BuzzFeed's will always give a publisher the ability to sell space to advertisers, but prestige gives it a different, and more lucrative pitch—not just the promise of higher-income, better-educated readers, but the currency that comes with a recognizable name. Most digital media companies, Gawker Media included, accept that the audience size that gets a salesperson's foot in the door with an advertiser is often at odds with the kind of "prestige" work that sharpens his pitch. This is one way of understanding BuzzFeed's free spending on well-known and highly respected writers and editors among its 700-odd employees: An investment in quality to offset the growing inanity of the content that increases its audience size.
But quality, an attribute of work itself, doesn't necessarily translate to prestige, an outcome of the way people talk about work. More importantly, perhaps, prestige does not necessarily guarantee quality. (Anyone who reads the New York Times' op-ed columnists knows this.) You can't fake quality—take it from us; we've tried—but prestige is essentially all fake: Take a sponsored stunt and give it the weight of a transformative personal experience. Take a Wikipedia article and give it the ambition of an academic treatise. Take the Oatmeal and pretend it's Shel Silverstein.
These pieces are built for attention, not rigor or insight or the other traits we associate with quality. They're geared toward the young and facile, teenagers who need reminding of the existence of other humans, college students for whom the veneer of intellectualism is the equivalent of rigor, men for whom gender nonconformity can make a powerful statement. This makes sense for Buzzfeed, whose audience, like that of many web publishers riding the social-sharing boom, skews young. So the site has a business reason to publish such pieces: to educate its core demographic, alongside the requisite One Direction listicles and recipe fails. They are popular, and give off the outward appearance of quality. But they certainly don't fit into the site's own narrative of soaring journalistic content. Nor do they invite criticism or debate. The only option for feedback is to like them, share them, or mark them as a "FAIL." Not exactly a robust experience.
If there were other options—a button that says "stop mansplaining to me," for example—BuzzFeed might find the reaction to its pieces quite different. Literally hundreds of millions of women and gender-nonconforming men are better qualified to explain the politics of makeup than Isaac Fitzgerald. So why is he, a white man, explaining it to the tune of a million page views on BuzzFeed? Anne Helen Petersen is an untrustworthy and overwrought writer on celebrities in a field laden with tabloids, yet she cranks out an essay per week on the subject. And Nathan Pyle—I'm not sure what he is—is somehow qualified to explain racism, simplifying issues that are only becoming more complicated, and nuanced, with each horrific news event related to them.
The three pieces I've discussed here are by white writers. BuzzFeed has been bullish about its diversity effort; I have greatly admired executive editor Shani Hilton's vocal, honest and transparent plans to increase her staff's diversity in an industry that seems to think the concept means hiring people who graduated from state schools. She is doing a much better job than Gawker at this, and Buzzfeed is a better outlet for it—one that, at its best, genuinely reflects and engages with the web's many different communities.
Take, for example, this essay about makeup and queer identity by BuzzFeed Beauty Editor Arabelle Sicardi. It was posted to the site an hour after Isaac Fitzgerald's piece, also in the site's Style section. "Makeup is by no means natural. That's the point. If I work hard to survive, you will pay attention when you see me, and you will see the work," Sicardi writes. "Because it is work: to survive, when others would wish otherwise." It's a beautiful essay, and although it's not clear if it's a reaction piece or a companion piece to Fitzgerald's, it's no matter: Sicardi's work far surpasses her colleague's in terms of thoughtfulness, voice, and general contribution to the canon of internet posts.
BuzzFeed would be better served if it published more work like Sicardi's and less like Fitzgerald's. Virality is easy; given the right kind of platform and network, it's not hard to come by prestige. But quality is hard. Here, in a small, quiet snippet, we have it. BuzzFeed doesn't seem to want to wait for the kind of success that would come with developing, nurturing and promoting smarter content, even if it's at the expense of pageviews—or reputation. Instead, it ends up pandering to its locked-in audience, appearing to tackle thorny topics and securing the prestige that accompanies that appearance. BuzzFeed has already captured the adolescent and the undergraduate sensibility who appreciate that content. What happens when those readers grow up?
[Image by Jim Cooke]