Click factories and viral news publishers - plucky underdogs, or grossly inflated insiders?

By: Rob Corbidge, 11 May 2023

red line graph arrow climbing vertically through white fluffy clouds, high definition, pop art

BuzzFeed et al were a phenomenon of a kind, yet they didn't really change anything at all.

Where did you see "The Dress "? The "is it black/blue or white/gold" debate caught the online imagination back in 2015, and was some of the purest viral content yet seen. 

But whose story was it?

Using the rigorous "ask around the office" method of data collection and comparison, none of the respondents could recall exactly where they'd seen it, and none gave the same answer. Not one named BuzzFeed.

Reading Traffic - Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race To Viral,  the fascinating new book by former editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News Ben Smith, he devotes a chapter to The Dress and the excitement BuzzFeed staffers experienced on the back of the traffic "What Colours Are This Dress?" generated for them. He talks of BuzzFeed engineers having to rapidly up server capacity, and calls it as a moment BuzzFeed content generated true global virality.

Yet now, as we know, such viral-based dependency on a platform outside your control generally isn't the gilt-edged gift to publishers it was anticipated to be back then. 

Facebook was the driving platform for much of The Dress traffic, and if Facebook is your only card, then it's Facebook playing the game, not you. Smith makes the interesting observation that even Facebook didn't know what it could do in terms of sheer algorithmic reach back in 2015, and so The Dress informed a good deal of their subsequent thinking around keeping FB users in their content lanes.

Virality without stickiness is what BuzzFeed achieved. Facebook as a home page for a publisher will tend to do that. Many people saw The Dress in The Guardian for example, or anywhere but BuzzFeed. There is no ownership of such content online.

A cold reading of Smith's book would be that it describes the efforts of a bunch of super-charged gossip columnists to burn through as much money as they could in as short a time as possible. It's a story that could only have happened in the United States at that moment in time, and that's to the obvious innovative credit of the US. However, despite claims of global reach, it's also clear that to participate in this media money incinerator, you needed to be moving in a fairly tight circles on the east and west coast of the United States. 

Money obviously plays a role in this story. One of the problems that BuzzFeed, HuffPost, Vox and Vice all experienced was the sheer amount of money that was flung at them. At one point BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti was heavily courted by Disney with real Disney money. He didn't go for it, thinking Disney didn't really understand what they were trying to do. The battle cry was: "Don't worry about profitability, go for growth." As such, they were always artificially sustained lifeforms in the media biome.

All of this is written with the acknowledgement that hindsight makes everyone wise and at least these people were trying something. While the pillars of Big Media have largely remained standing through this online onslaught from other media people who felt themselves to be outsiders, it is regrettably the lesser media structures that suffered most from the changing paradigm. 

A common theme in the book is the desire harboured by many of those featured within its pages to make "a tech product". Such a product was the certificate required to enter the domain of the tech bros, and in that regard they all failed. And are still seemingly sore about it. 

The lesson long ago absorbed by the industry's most agile thinkers is that publishing companies shouldn't actually build tech. It simply affects the focus of a publisher too much and causes the natural rhythm of the business to march to a different beat. 

In tech, there is little-to-no trace of BuzzFeed, or Gawker or any of the other upstarts. They did give us the Listicle though, bless them.