Last week, vlogger Akilah Hughes leveled a very serious accusation against BuzzFeed: large-scale plagiarism. After making her argument at length on Twitter, she called, in a petition, for advertisers to sever ties with the website, which she said was stealing video and formats from independent web-video producers and presenting them as original ideas.
Examples included esoteric yet prominent-on-the-web formats like pancake art, “100 Years of X” retrospectives, segments in which people “answer user submitted questions on behalf of [their] entire race as a joke,” and narrowcasted identity content (“14 Signs You’re From The Midwest,” or whatever).
Though the accusation managed to gain some traction among Hughes’s followers, as a controversy it didn’t rise to a level much beyond Twitter sniping. Which is why it was more than a little surprising to see BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti firing back today, on Medium, in a strident and lengthy post (complete with custom art!). Weirder still was that his argument ultimately boiled down to: If BuzzFeed is guilty of copying anyone, it’s BuzzFeed itself.
Addressing a series of conspicuously similar YouTube thumbnails showing introverts wearing blankets over their head, Peretti pointed out:
In addition, we made a YouTube playlist of our introvert content with 19 videos on it — the earliest from August 2013, one and a half years before your “How to Be an Introvert” video. We also have made at least seven videos about staying in and what people do when their roommate is away, several videos about Netflix, and countless posts on BuzzFeed.com dating back many years.
Well, he’s right: It’s pretty clear that the BuzzFeed posts predated Hughes’s (and others she cited). But more than proving Hughes wrong, the Medium essay serves to demonstrate that BuzzFeed is itself a recycling factory, churning out content about the same set of topics, ad nauseam.
This is fine; it’s not as though BuzzFeed is hiding this fact or pretending to be something different. That there is nothing truly new on the internet has been a principle assumption of web content for a while, but it’s rare for someone to lay it out so explicitly and defensively — especially when he’s a multimillionaire in charge of one of the most influential media companies on the planet.
And it ends up calling attention to questions of attribution and creative control that are maybe a little less comfortable for Peretti. BuzzFeed’s Buzz (editorial content not produced by their news division) is often just a conglomeration of other people’s funny pictures and tweets and social-media posts. And on a purely creative level, that’s more or less fine — this exchange is how the internet is supposed to work. It’s one big chicken-and-egg conundrum that almost always fails to provide a definitive, correct answer to the question of “Who did this?”
Where the back-and-forth becomes thornier is where the money enters into the equation. Hughes’s original post calling out BuzzFeed was addressed not to them, but to advertisers who provide BuzzFeed with revenue. She writes:
Don’t you think your millions of dollars would be better spent on original content from young creators with audiences and potential on YouTube? Do you know how much more of a return you’d get on your investment if you paid 50 top creators $20,000 instead of throwing a blind million at the untalented, underpaid staff at BuzzFeed Motion Pictures?
There’s the rub. The ultimate offense is not that BuzzFeed is arguably using other people’s creations, it’s that they are actively profiting off of them. Open exchange of ideas is a core principle of the internet. Open exchange of money, however? Not so much.