As the decade began, there were reasons to be optimistic: America had elected its first black president, and despite a global recession just two years earlier, the world hadn’t cascaded into total financial collapse. Obamacare, for all its flaws, was passed, and then came the Iran deal and the Paris climate accords. Sure, there were danger signs: the anger of the tea party, the slow hollowing out of legacy news media, a troubling sense that somehow the bankers got away with it. But then maybe the immediacy of social media gave some hope, at least if you listened to the chatter of the bright young kids in the Bay Area trying to build a new kind of unmediated citizenship. Maybe everyday celebrity, post-gatekeeper, would change the world for the better. Some of that happened. But we also ended up with the alt-right and Donald Trump, inequality, impeachment, and debilitating FOMO. How did we get here? Throughout this week, we will be publishing long talks with six people who helped shape the decade — and were shaped by it — to hear what they’ve learned. Read them all here.
“I heard WeGrow, the preschool, is being shut down,” Jonah Peretti says, sitting in a conference room in BuzzFeed’s New York offices. “How do you explain that to your 4-year-old?” He affects a gently parental tone: “There’s this guy Adam Neumann, and he’s very charismatic …”
Like Neumann, Peretti took money from the Japanese investment giant SoftBank — not the company’s Saudi-backed Vision Fund, he’s careful to clarify — early in his start-up’s life. Unlike WeWork, though, BuzzFeed has managed to keep its head above water for 13 years in an industry with prospects much worse than real estate’s. Since its founding in 2006 and especially since the creation of the BuzzFeed News division in 2012, BuzzFeed has led the transformation of a news-media industry threatened by tech megaplatforms, private-equity vultures, fickle readers, and declining ad sales. It has pioneered new formats and business models, all while breaking major national stories like that of the infamous Steele dossier. (Even the New York Times has taken notice: Its 2014 “Innovation Report” looked to BuzzFeed as a model of web-publishing excellence, and Dean Baquet recently remarked on its substantial journalistic impact.) But it’ll probably always be known for the memes. “The audience still isn’t bored of quizzes,” Peretti says.
When did you first see “the dress”?
I was out in a restaurant, and I was trying to be polite and not look at my phone and hanging out with my friends. And my phone was vibrating, and people were like, “Oh my God.” The restaurant I was in, literally all the waiters were looking at it. People were passing it around.
How long did that last?
The next morning, we just ran into a stranger. They were like, “Oh, that was so yesterday.” But the dress was a kind of perfect thing to catch fire at that moment. The internet was less polarized and politicized, and it had shifted to mobile fully so people were looking at mobile devices. With the dress, if you saw it on your phone and you were with people, you could hold the phone up and say, “What color is this?” Plus, in the early days of BuzzFeed, our traffic would die in the evening because people would watch television or go out with their friends. Now, with mobile, we see prime time for our content as the same as prime time for television. People are sharing content and looking at content later.
Have the conditions changed such that something like the dress couldn’t happen again?
I think it’s harder. One reason is I think it made Facebook a little uncomfortable. The algorithm was like, “This is the piece of content everyone in the world should see.” I think that scared Facebook a little bit, that there could be a publisher that promotes a piece of content that then their algorithm feels like it needs to show to everyone in the world. Today, there’s a fear of viral content — you see this in China to an even greater extent. The Chinese government is very afraid of things that go viral, because it’s something that they can’t control. And I think even in the U.S. now, there’s more of a moment of trying to control the internet. Ironically, that has led to much more microtargeting, where instead of having one thing that everyone in the world sees, we have personalized content for each individual, and keep people more in their lanes and in their bubbles, and not have as much entertainment that cuts across the entire social network or the entire web. In the long run, I think that’s led to things like more separatist movements around the world, more polarization.
How has media coverage of politics changed since 2008, when you made your mark as one of the founders of the Huffington Post?
At Huffington Post, it was less about scoops and journalism. We were more of an aggregator, and we noticed at the time that Digg was a big source of traffic. During the primaries, when Obama and Hillary Clinton were competing, one of the things that was kind of shocking to me was how the Digg community was having this huge impact. When there was a story that was pro-Obama, it would quickly get voted at the top of Digg because Digg’s community liked Obama. And when there was a story that was pro-Hillary or that talked about Hillary in a positive light, it would get down-voted and buried and never make it in front of Digg. Some media outlets started to realize that, and they were starting to write content for Digg — “Oh, Obama was amazing,” and then, boom, 40,000 views to your posts. That to me felt like an early-warning sign of how media was changing, that a community and an algorithm combined to make it so that Hillary couldn’t win the primary and Obama could. I think that dynamic really was partly why Obama was able to win and then ultimately become president.
Over time, that dynamic has gotten bigger and bigger. It’s why Bloomberg’s presidential campaign probably won’t go anywhere. It’s harder if you’re a boring centrist who doesn’t have a strong, passionate community obsessed with you and a message that gets torqued by algorithms because it is exciting or crazy or interesting or extreme or novel. Obama, I think, was this really interesting case because he was very good with positive messages, but he also was novel as the first black major-party nominee. Over time, you’re seeing these trends continue, where having a fanatical fandom behind you and a message that drives engagement on platforms gives you an advantage if you’re trying to run for president.
It sounds like you’re making an argument that the dress and its subsequent success, and the reaction of platforms like Facebook pushing for further microtargeting, ultimately resulted in Trump.
I mean, I think Trump is part of it, but there’s a larger macrotrend that microtargeting is both a cause and a result of. The internet has had this first-order effect of giving everyone a voice and connecting the world. Now, it’s having this second-order effect that we are still trying to understand. Is it that globalism is going to be replaced with lots of nationalistic movements? And one inflection point was Trump being elected. Joyful, positive content started to be replaced with critical, negative content. A lot of the content that started to go viral was more polarizing and fighting.
But you’re also saying that shift had already been in place before Trump was nominated or elected. And in fact, you could argue the more aggressive stuff, the less joyful stuff, was part of what pushed him to the nomination.
One shift after the dress was platforms like Facebook wanting to take more control of their platform. Even before Trump, Facebook started to become more like Netflix, where it wasn’t that your friend shared this content with you, it’s that you’ve engaged with Beyoncé content before; and when a page that you follow posts something about Beyoncé, it gets matched with you and put into your feed. It’s a recommendation algorithm showing you things similar to things you’ve seen before, and the same on the ad side, getting targeted.
It was frustrating for BuzzFeed editors, to be honest, because, at the time, they would make content and judge whether they’re doing a good job by how much that content reached new people and was shared to reach new audiences. That became a smaller and smaller percentage of the traffic that we would get to any post. And a larger and larger percentage was just based on matching and targeting and preferences. So every Taylor Swift post would get about the same number of views and reach the same kind of people. The internet became less about people sharing with each other and less people powered, and more powered by an algorithm that’s matching content to people based on their interests.
You guys had success with fairly microtargeted content before this shift started to happen, though, didn’t you? There was a year and a half there when lists like “How You Can Tell You’re From Princeton, New Jersey,” “Where I’m From,” or whatever were doing really well for BuzzFeed.
But when you look at a post like “Signs You’re Raised by Asian Immigrant Parents,” we could see that half of the people reading it weren’t Asian. I think what ended up happening is that, over time, people realized you could do the same thing but have it be about a negative view of other people. Like, “This is who we are, and everyone else is threatening us.” Or, “You should be fearful of us.”
Why has the right has been so particularly good at owning social media in a way the liberals and the left haven’t been able to?
I think there are a few reasons. One is that Steve Bannon was trying to use Breitbart to get Trump elected. In the book Devil’s Bargain, there’s a passage that says that when Breitbart was getting off the ground, I spoke to Bannon — which I don’t remember because, at that time, who knew who Steve Bannon was? And he was like, I love the idea that it was about community, not about traffic. I was like, Oh my God, I inspired Steve Bannon.
If you were in charge of the vast left-wing-media cabal, what would the left do to make itself more viral?
Basically, don’t burden yourself with truth. Just make memes that participate in the cultural wars.
You worked with Andrew Breitbart at the Huffington Post, too, right?
I did, yeah.
You could make a good case that Breitbart was the publication that defined the 2016 election.
Yeah. The left-wing sites and centrist sites were all linking to each other and talking to each other, the left-wing sites were being checked by these mainstream sites, and the readership was kind of between the two. But Breitbart was kind of off in its own space, creating its own reality. When Trump gave his first speeches, immigration wasn’t the biggest thing he talked about, but he got good reactions from the crowd and, almost like a stand-up comic or musician, he learned to change based on that. Breitbart was doing the same thing online, testing messages and seeing what kinds of things got engagement.
Isn’t that what everyone in media is doing?
BuzzFeed’s not trying to get anyone elected. The mainstream media and the left-wing media keep each other in check, and Fox News and Breitbart are kind of out there on their own. And they are much more focused on political outcomes, which is not really the case with the mainstream media and even the left-wing media. There’s a feeling of, Well, it’s not fair because the right can meme Trump to the presidency with things that are inaccurate, and then the left feels like, Oh, if I do something, then the New York Times is going to write an article that says this is inaccurate or this or that or the other. And then all my friends are going to read that article, you know?
Can we talk about the publication of the Steele dossier in that context? I’m wondering about the decision to publish an unredacted document over the objections of traditional media gatekeepers.
It’s a philosophical difference. In the era of industrial media — newspapers, broadcast television — the media thought of itself as a gatekeeper and was a gatekeeper. There were good things about that model. Now, with the internet, information can go viral unchecked by anyone, just uploaded to a platform. We live in a totally different environment, where information can be peer-to-peer, it can be spread to groups. The platforms would love it if they had to spend no money on media or content and if users just put up all media and content. And if you think of yourself as a gatekeeper, you’re deluding yourself. So the philosophical difference is that we see our role is to not keep information from people. We see our role as to help them understand the information that’s circulating, help them understand information that is circulating at the highest levels of government or that is spreading across the internet in the form of a hoax or fake news.
I’ve always been sort of tickled by the fact that Peter Kaplan was the first person you went to when you were thinking about starting BuzzFeed News. He wasn’t a new-model thinker about news on the internet; he’s an old-school lion. What was it about Peter that made you want him to run BuzzFeed News?
I had met him a couple times, and Ken Lerer knew him for a long time. I asked Peter for advice: “You know, the 2012 election’s coming up. We want to get into news. We have this vision of social content,” which was a new thing at the time, “and we’re doing it for entertainment and cute animals and internet memes, but now people are starting to share news. What do you recommend?” And he said, “Well, you should have smart people whose writing you like come to BuzzFeed and just give a pitch to your editors and writers” — around 12 of us at the time — “about what they would do and how they would cover the election.” And he did one first, and I was like, “Why don’t you just do it?” That was great.
What was his pitch?
He said that every election cycle, a news source emerges and defines itself with its coverage. And, even though BuzzFeed had only done the cute kittens and internet memes, that this was going to be a big election and the opportunity to get really great reporters who will break stories that will go everywhere on social media and could put us on the map as a news organization. The time to do it was in this election cycle. I said, “You should do it.” And he’s like, “Oh, I got kids in college,” and he was working at a big job at Condé Nast, and so he was like, “There’s this guy Ben Smith. You know, he used to have it. You should talk to him.” And so Ben came. And he still had it.
Arguably, the 2012 election was when BuzzFeed emerged as a news organization, and the Boston Marathon bombing came the year after. A lot of people have suggested it was the moment when BuzzFeed’s news operation came into its own, and there was a sense that it knew what it was doing better than anybody. It seemed surprising. Was it surprising for you?
Well, the big surprise for me was that this horrific thing happens in Boston and we immediately saw our front-page traffic go up. At the time, BuzzFeed was really mostly known for lists and quizzes and cute animals, and the pundit class was basically saying, “People don’t want news from BuzzFeed. They want news on a serious news site, and you have all this entertainment content.” And yet our audience, our millennial audience, was saying, “Oh, I read BuzzFeed every day. I wonder what they are saying or what they can tell me about what’s happening in this Boston thing.” We were moving to an environment where news and entertainment were mixed together more and where people were used to consuming content in these feeds.
I was reading something you wrote on BuzzFeed around this time, about whether the reader should buy Facebook stock, and it contained this explanation of the history of the Internet — moving from portals like AOL to search engines to social media. Was the 2010s the decade of social?
Yeah. The internet started out with not a very deep metric for engagement, which is impressions. The first advertising on the internet was banner ads, and you couldn’t really tell if anyone saw them or not. It was just, “Oh, this image was served a bunch of times.” That built Yahoo and was how a lot of publishing worked. Then you saw that Google figured out you could actually look at whether someone clicked. What was a kind of superficial metric of impressions turned into a deeper metric of clicks. Then Facebook was able to say, “Well, sharing is an even deeper connection because you’re saying something that isn’t just worth clicking on for yourself.” That added social validation and the people in your life to the internet. So it went from being solitary to being a group thing and social thing.
It also involves a lot of surveillance.
To me, the promise of it is not just surveillance of people to make more money off them. The promise of it is, it’s like a live musician who performs at a concert is going to get the energy from the crowd, and they’re going to have that back-and-forth sense of what’s happening. To me, that’s the biggest difference between making anything, where you make a product and then it just gets sent out to the masses, and working on the internet, where you make something and immediately there’s all these comments and people on Twitter saying things and it’s getting shared, maybe a lot, maybe a little. You immediately realize that what you created is being perceived and understood a certain way by different people, and then that affects what you write the next time. That’s had a really fundamental shift on how content is made and how media companies think about, you know, making content.
It’s like live performance in the sense that you’re riffing with the audience. If you’re a stand-up comic and you have a joke and you tell it and no one laughs, you say, Oh, I got to rework that joke. And you try it a different way and you add a little thing, and then you notice, Oh, they laughed. They laughed at the wrong part. Why was that? Oh, maybe that’s because there’s another thing that’s funny in it. And then you end up with a great joke. And I think that doesn’t make you a bad stand-up comic; that makes you a good stand-up comic, just so long as you don’t just pander to the audience, that you actually have a voice or a vision or something you want to communicate.
Specifically, how do you think that has affected news journalism? Do you think the way journalists write is different now from the way it was before they had that kind of immediate back-and-forth and feedback?
So there’s a sense of being more accountable to the audience. You can no longer write a long, boring story and imagine that everyone reads it just ’cause it was in the New York Times. And I think a lot of the biggest stories are now being driven by the online reaction. I don’t think the Me Too movement is just a heroic act of journalism; it’s that every time there’s a story, the online distribution of that story results in new victims and new sources emerging, and then it creates a new urgency for the subjects of the story who are no longer able to keep their jobs or to avoid scrutiny.
Is the Stanford Jane Doe impact statement an example of a story that was generated out of that kind of back-and-forth?
She provided the letter to us because she had read Katie J.M. Baker’s reporting on sexual abuse on campuses and knew that we had both a great team of reporters who take these issues seriously and a huge global audience that cares about these issues. We have a really young audience, and a lot of young women read BuzzFeed. Sexual abuse on campuses was a big story that wasn’t being covered that much when we started to really break a bunch of stories in that area a few years ago. We know what our audience cares about better because, well, they’re online and we’re online with them and we’re in that mix.
There are fears that people have that awareness of audience will drive you to stories about the Kardashians or something and not to good journalism. But in many cases, it’s issues that are urgently important to young people, for example, that are getting covered more by real, serious journalists, and that’s because of the internet and the connection with the audience.
How do you do that with the vegetables of news — especially local news, city-council meetings, stuff that strikes me as hard to think about in that way?
There’s a real crisis in local news, and I don’t know what the solution is.
The internet favors global news because if you make a piece of content that people can view globally, that’s just a much bigger addressable audience than if you make a piece of content that only people in one neighborhood care about. I think having the two-way connection with the audience is still helpful. And maybe that’s on “Next Door” or it’s on a smaller blog or it’s on another site. But the challenge is if you’re just making money through ads, CPMs, and things like that, how do you make sure you can invest when your addressable audience is so much smaller?
But I mean, there’s sort of a deeper question there: What is news? Is news what the editors at the New York Times say is news, or is news what people care about, or is news somewhere in the middle between those two things or the intersection of those two things?
How do you answer that question at BuzzFeed?
BuzzFeed News’s slogan is “Reporting to you,” and it’s about that connection between really great journalists working in the service of our audience and things that matter to our audience.
Do you think the media screwed up the 2016 election in its coverage?
Yes. I mean, part of being the media is screwing up. You know the rough-draft-of-history cliché. You’re doing things without knowing what the future holds, and when you look back, it’s really easy to criticize. The front page of the New York Times, with all of the Hillary email stuff on it, definitely feels in retrospect like it was blown out of proportion. That may have been sexism, that may have been both sides–ism. It may have been people underestimating Trump’s chance of winning.
Why was Trump’s victory missed so badly? It sounds as if you were seeing data demonstrating that Trump was driving way more engagement over Clinton. Why wasn’t that an indication he’d win?
Thinking back to that Digg example, Obama won the presidency probably because the internet had started to become a thing and these social-media dynamics favored him over his main primary challenger. That may have cost Hillary the presidential election as well with Trump. That’s something I don’t even think is fully on the radar of the traditional media. But if you’re trying to figure out who’s going to have a chance at beating the odds or outperforming, understanding these internet dynamics is so important.
There was still a general belief that the mass media and the party system and the voters are going to reject someone who seems so out of line with the norms. But now that he’s won, I think everyone is much more aware that maybe a much broader range of possible candidates can win. And if they can light up the algorithms and they have a fan base behind them and they speak in a way that appeals to voters who are not necessarily closely following every political debate, they can win.
It feels to me like Andrew Yang is the candidate who is best aware of this and is building a campaign around it in some ways.
Yang feels different than Trump in that he’s self-conscious of it. He’s thinking of it like a system and trying to figure out how to use it.
He’s a tool-using animal instead of just completely reactive and instinctive.
But in some ways, understanding it can be a disadvantage.
How do you feel about Facebook these days?
I think the biggest challenge Facebook has, and YouTube and some of these other platforms have, is that the main way consumers interact with their product is through the content, and they don’t actually control any of the content. And so there’s these giant companies that make tons of money that have huge cultural impact, and the experience of it is being defined by a bunch of much smaller companies that are all kind of trying to get scrappy and figure out how to make content on the internet in a way that’s sustainable.
It felt to me like there was a point when Facebook turned on and then turned off a traffic fire hose. It was somewhere around 2014, 2015, that traffic stopped going off-site to articles and stayed on-site for video. Did you experience it like that?
We knew Facebook wanted to do video; they said they wanted to do more video. And we also knew that Facebook’s users didn’t like video. We’d say, “Oh, we have all these great videos. We can put them on Facebook, too.” We put them on Facebook, and the audience hated it — and they hated it because they were using Facebook for, you know, two-minute check-ins when they had a little break in their day to see what was going on in the world and with their friends. Text is a better thing, more scannable. So we saw, “Oh wow, this is an opportunity because video is something that the company is really prioritizing, and it isn’t working. And so we need to figure out what format could work.” And we tried a lot of experiments and a whole bunch of different areas, and Tasty really emerged out of a bunch of different experiments — some with food, some not with food — to make audio-optional video, where you didn’t need to have sound on that immediately attracts your attention.
This was around the time of the big “pivot to video.”
We started video at BuzzFeed much earlier than a lot of companies that were trying to do this pivot to video. But in the last couple of years, it’s been more evident to people that video is tough, right? It costs more. It’s more difficult. The platforms have a lot more lock-in. It’s something that takes a lot of up-front investment, and it’s funny to me that the companies that have stayed away from video have done better than the companies that have kind of half-assed it and tried to do video and then realized that, “Oh, this is expensive.” The problem is that the cost was something people didn’t think about. They just thought about the CPMs and the advertising. They’re like, “Oh, I get a $10 CPM on my text content, but they’ll pay $30 for a video. That means I should pivot to video, and video will be great.” And then you get into it, and you start saying, “Oh, wait a second, how much does it cost to make the video?”
Do you think people didn’t understand the underlying economics? They didn’t see how it worked?
You can’t really get how it works because, in a boom period like the last decade, you’re creating things ahead of the market. Facebook video doesn’t even exist, and then it’s a thing, and then it’s a different thing. In the early days, it wasn’t that people were dumb and didn’t understand that, to run a business, you have to sell the hot dog for more than it costs to make a hot dog. The opportunity was huge but also uncertain, and people were having to build a lot of it and figure out the economics later. Now is later. Now is the time where people have to figure out these economics.
So what comes after video?
The big wild card in the next ten years of media is: Will there be a new hardware of some kind? Hardware cycles take longer, but they transform media. When BuzzFeed started, the iPhone didn’t exist. Our peak traffic time was during the middle of the day. I used to call it the “bored at work” network. But the cycle for hardware innovation has basically stalled. There was a Google Glass attempt, and that didn’t really go anywhere. And there’s, you know, Oculus and VR, which is feeling more like it could be PlayStation or Xbox, where it’s something that’s a big business and popular but not something that everyone uses, not a dominant thing that changes media. So is there going to be some big thing in the next ten years, where you’re getting your media in your glasses or in your eye or directly in your brain or something like that? That’s a harder one to predict, and when it breaks through, it has massive implications for many different, different things.
Putting aside hardware, if the 2010s were the decade of social — and if we’ve moved from portals to search to social — is a next era visible?
The biggest thing opening up now is action in the real world and the internet being fully integrated into people’s lives. This is one commercial example, but we just launched, inside the Tasty app, an integration where you could click a recipe you like and it puts all of the ingredients into your shopping cart, and you can pick it up at a Walmart or have it delivered to your house.
Why is physical the only revenue model that’s working right now? Is there something wrong with advertising?
No. Advertising works. We want to have a diversified business where you build essentially a flywheel — where, when you make a Tasty video, you’re getting some advertising revenue, you’re getting some sponsorship revenue, you’re getting some licensing revenue, people buying products or maybe driving a direct transaction with people buying groceries, where now the Tasty app is integrated into Walmart groceries.
At some point, the question must become “Is this still a media company?”
The thing that makes it a media company is that we make media. There’s nothing inherent in advertising. If you go back, I don’t know, 50 years and you have a newspaper, you have advertising, you have subscription revenue, you have the classifieds kind of marketplace, which is a form of advertising, but it’s more of a marketplace; and then you have the Sunday insert with coupons and shopper marketing stuff, which is like an affiliate-type business that’s driving direct transactions. You wouldn’t say the newspaper is not a media company.
I’m interested in the question of VC investment, too, because it’s been such a huge part of the story of media in the past ten years. BuzzFeed is obviously a successful venture-backed company. What do you think the effect of venture capital on these companies has been? Has the kind of media we consume been changed by VC funding?
VC funding has allowed certain companies to grow a lot faster and take advantage of an opportunity — the rise of these big platforms and the ability to build companies that are symbiotic or, at least, getting some benefit from them. I think that VC is not a reliable funder of media. They dip in and out of it, and they’re not really investing that much right now. They prefer pure tech-driven companies, and VCs in general don’t like having too many people involved. So I think in the long run, VCs are not the ones really shaping the media industry. They have helped BuzzFeed and Vox and a few other companies seize a moment, but I don’t know that VCs are going to be the long-term partners for media.
I want to ask about Benny Johnson, the conservative viral writer who was fired from BuzzFeed in 2014. What do you feel you learned from that experience?
I don’t know if I learned any big thoughts from that, just that Benny Johnson is a plagiarist.
One reason I ask is that he went on to have a very successful career as a creator of social-media agitprop for places like The Daily Caller. And, as you say, Breitbart and Bannon maybe picked up on some of the insights BuzzFeed had. Do you feel responsible for that? Is there some sense that you’ve learned all this stuff about communication, but the people who seem to be putting it to best use from a political point of view are people like Johnson or Bannon?
I’ve always thought it’s a kind of arrogance to think that your company or whatever you’re building by default makes the world a better place. Anything we figure out or anything any company figures out, other people will look at it and study it and try to use it for their own ends.
I want to talk about workplace culture because BuzzFeed was one of the places that mainstreamed the early youthful start-up culture. I imagine you sort of see that as being integral to Buzzfeed’s success.
I didn’t grow up in media, and I never have worked at a big company, really. I knew people who worked at start-ups and at nonprofits and in academic research labs, and so the natural way to start a company was, “Oh, let’s have an open floor plan, let’s give everyone stock options, let’s try to think how it should work and let’s build toward that.” In the very early days of BuzzFeed, we built our CMS, we made all our own content, we built our own ad model with native advertising. We just had this approach of building everything from scratch because the way it worked doesn’t make sense. Let’s build for that future. That was this start-up DNA. I didn’t ever think of the company as being youthful; I just was young, I guess. The people who are excited about working on stuff related to social content tended to be people who were consuming content that way, which was, at that time, just young people, and so we started building the company that way.
It seems there have been growing pains in figuring out how to transfer that kind of culture to a larger, more mature organization.
It’s been really difficult. Having to do layoffs was something that was a terrible shock to the culture and to the people and to everyone. It’s a hard cultural shift to go from, “Hey, there’s a new platform, and we’re going to just go make tons of content for it and see what happens and maybe make money later,” to “Oh, we’re going to analyze it a little more, weigh it a little more, and then find an interesting partnership to do it.” Now we have this foundation that is and a new way of innovating and growing that makes me feel really excited about the future.
BuzzFeed has a union now, too, and obviously you guys are not the only digital-media shop to have unionized. What do you think is driving that?
It’s a little like what I talked about earlier. I think that, across the culture, the zeitgeist is more about fighting: fighting against power, fighting against power that could be corrupt or could be taking advantage of people. The biggest example of that is Trump. The flip in the way people see the tech platforms and Silicon Valley is another example of it. The feeling of wanting solidarity, wanting to stand up to fight against global warming and to push for a bigger voice in the workplace. All of those things have aligned. Even when people love their workplace or think they’re fairly aligned with the mission of a company, I think there’s still that idea of wanting to have solidarity.
It is hard, I think, for founders of companies. I recognize this as a blind spot where founders who started when companies were really small tend to feel like they’re side by side with employees. I’m not so motivated by trying to make tons of money. I’m motivated by the mission of the company and the people of the company and fighting for the people in the company, so it’s hard for founders to grasp the idea that they’re going to be in a more adversarial relationship, where there’s, like, lawyers negotiating contracts and things like that. When I look at a lot of founders who had unions forming their companies, they’ve tended to end up no longer that engaged with a company. You know, Denton, and Arianna, and Shane.
I mean, there were a lot of reasons Nick Denton stopped being engaged with his company. Did you follow the Thiel-Hogan-Gawker stuff at all?
I definitely followed it, yeah.
What did you think?
The tough thing for Gawker was just that the views on privacy really changed a lot, and there was a feeling, I think, that exposing something more personal and sexual in nature was something the broader public is worried about. The privacy argument banged up against the “public has the right to know” argument and made the case as a whole less sympathetic to the broader public. When it was revealed that there was a secret funder, that was such a mind-blowing moment.
I guess that’s the way the world feels all the time now — soap opera, the villain unmasked, or something like that.
It makes me think about the Epstein stories now. There’s a sort of view in New York media that is like, “Oh, all these conspiracy theorists are so nutty and they believe that there’s these billionaires who are, like, running child-prostitution rings and influencing which media companies go out of business and which ones can continue to exist and are controlling academia.” And that’s all just kinda crazy, you know, QAnon-type stuff. And then you’re like, “Oh, you know …”
I’m not saying the world is run by billionaires pulling strings in conspiracies. I think the conspiratorially minded people on the internet definitely underestimate the scale of the economy and the scale of different institutions. In my experience, having spent time with various billionaires and leaders, they’re usually as confused as anyone else and just trying to figure out how to, like, make their stuff work. But there are some pretty shocking cases.
*A version of this article appears in the November 25, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!