BuzzFeed may soon need to enter a 12-step program called Codependents Anonymous.
In an essay published Friday, Ben Smith went on about how wrong comedian John Stewart was to put BuzzFeed on par with a carnival barkers. Stewart described what it feels like to visit sites like BuzzFeed and Vice. He said, “I scroll around, but when I look at the internet, I feel the same as when I’m walking through Coney Island,” Stewart told New York magazine. “It’s like carnival barkers, and they all sit out there and go, ‘Come on in here and see a three-legged man!’ So you walk in and it’s a guy with a crutch.”
The comedian’s words ring true, which doesn’t really matter. But what gives them a sort of strength and validity is what came next, which was Smith’s defense of BuzzFeed as not a carnival act. He claims they absolutely never run click-bait, a term he explains means stuff you click on that doesn’t deliver the juice. Insists Smith, all their stories deliver. It’s in BuzzFeed’s secret handbook.
“Clickbait stopped working around 2009,” he wrote in his 1,117-word manifesto.
He explained that “many people in the media industry confuse what they do with true clickbait.” He said he hasn’t done a great job explaining why “BuzzFeed has always avoided click-bait.” Get this: He wanted to keep it secret so rivals wouldn’t figure out that click-bait doesn’t actually work.
Every “news” outlet has its crosses to bear. Gawker goes too far. Politico is arrogant and inappropriately cozy with sources. WaPo is dry and boring. Breitbart News is located somewhere in the vicinity of the tea party’s anus. HuffPost is too overwhelming. Roll Call isn’t what it once was. Vox.com speaks to you like you’re a child. CNN has Fareed Zakaria. A reporter friend recently told me The Daily Caller‘s headlines are too “fratboyish” and they’re really starting to irritate him. And you know what I said? “I hear ya.” Which translates loosely to, “Has your brain stopped working? But instead of berating you, I’m going to swaddle you in a blanket of love and acceptance.” Most importantly, I didn’t try to change his views.
But Ben Smith? He absolutely can’t stand Stewart mocking BuzzFeed for not being the serious news site he thinks it is. I mean, they’ve got tattoo-laden John Stanton on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” This past weekend, BuzzFeed‘s own Ben Smith went on ABC’s “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos to explain why a politician’s mentions on Facebook will mean something big for the next presidential election in the realm of “mass persuasion.” In other words, BuzzFeed and Facebook are partnering up to explain how powerful Facebook is.
Can’t Stewart grasp the status that comes to BuzzFeed with all that? And what, exactly, about the following headlines screams carnival act? 1. “31 Cat Reactions For Everyday Situations” 2. “If All Of Your Ex-Boyfriends Were Cats, These Are The Cats They Would Be” 3. “What Your Eyebrow Style Says About You.” 4. “What Silver Fox Should You Hook Up With?” And maybe my favorite, 5. “36 Gorgeous Boots For Women With Large Calves.” Come on, this a serious news operation. After you wade through the quizzes and listicles, the site actually does have serious stories. Which is why Smith compares his version of click-bait to what happens when you happen to see one of those really glistening peaches and can’t control yourself until it’s too late and the disgusting rot is already rolling around in your poor saliva:
“It’s the kind of taste you get in your mouth from a glistening but spoiled peach,” he wrote.
Smith quotes The Verge‘s Nilay Patel as someone who describes their position on click-bait even better than BuzzFeed ever has, if that is even humanly possible. Patel, it just so happens, has a burst of praise for BuzzFeed rolled into his quote.
“Most clickbait is disappointing because it’s a promise of value that isn’t met — the payoff isn’t nearly as good as what the reader imagines,” Patel told Poynter. “BuzzFeed headlines pay off particularly well because they actually make fairly small promises and then overdeliver.”
In his essay, Smith said he has no idea how many page views BuzzFeed gets a month. Oh, so BuzzFeed is just so over page views at this point? Does he really expect us to swallow that rotten peach of a statement? He wants readers to believe that an editor of a site known for its cat listicles and “How Gay Are You?” quizzes doesn’t know what his traffic is? By the way, don’t confuse that quiz with “Which Gay Best Friend Are you?” or “Which Gay Sex Position Are You?”
Smith wrote, “BuzzFeed has never sold a banner, and I couldn’t even tell you how many monthly page views we get. And so our business model at least moderates that incentive to drag every last click out of our audience.”
As a journalism friend put it to me in an email, “Every single word of this is a lie.”
Let’s hope peach farmers and BuzzFeed investors weren’t online Friday.