BuzzFeed ’s 21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity got seven million page views. The “news and entertainment company” – best known for stories wearing bright-yellow badges that scream LOL, OMG and WTF – is now in Australia to scare the heck out of journalists, media moguls and non-cat lovers from Perth to Penrith, Canberra to Cairns.
The Australian branch of BuzzFeed has been running for six months. Its haters label its content as frivolous clickbait, and dub its “listicles” and quizzes the lowest form of content; the type intent on dumbing down the internet for the sake of driving traffic to its site.
Traditional media and established mastheads have seen BuzzFeed, and others like it, suck advertising revenue from the market. Because BuzzFeed specialises in re-packaging content already on the internet – images or articles from other sites – there have also been more serious allegations of plagiarism.
Simon Crerar, the British-born editor of Buzzfeed Australia, grew up in a time when traditional newspapers mattered. He worked for them, too; The Sunday Times magazine (UK), the Times Online (UK) and The Sydney Morning Herald online.
BuzzFeed has taken advantage of its huge and growing audience: 130 million people worldwide. “We’re of the opinion that just about any piece of content can work as a list,” says Crerar. “It annoys me personally when people describe us as an aggregator. Certainly, if something exciting or positive or inspiring or amazing is happening on the internet, and we found it somewhere else, we package that up. But the vast majority of what we do is original content.
“I think newspapers always had comics, and people have always read them for the tittle-tattle of celebrity content. I think it’s great that in the digital age, and with social media, that we can use some of the money we are earning from having an audience and actually invest it in some serious journalism.”
It’s this that Crerar believes many don’t know about BuzzFeed. It invests in long-form journalism, had the first reporter on the ground in Ukraine (according to Crerar) after the tragic Malaysia Airlines crash, reported the conflict in Gaza and covers political news from Washington, Westminster and Canberra. Its editor in chief, Ben Smith, has written for the Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, Slate, The New York Post and The New Republic.
BuzzFeed began as what Crerar describes as an “experimental lab” when its CEO, Jonah Peretti was at online publishing juggernaut The Huffington Post (of which he was also a founder). He and a small team of people wanted to figure out what content is most shared online, and why. “We know people share things if they have had an emotional response to it,” says Crerar, “one way or another.”
BuzzFeed has made the most of this insight and refined it to the point where it now receives 150 million unique visitors a month. Could it all be people clicking on Kardashians, Things That Happen When You’re Not Wearing a Bra and 27 Photos That Will Change the Way You Look at Baby Wombats? Or do some come for the serious news, too?
BuzzFeed focuses on the things it knows we use to define ourselves by: the groups we think we’re part of, the fashions and music we like, where we grew up, our sexuality, race etc. “We produce a lot of content that, to people who don’t spend a lot of time on our website, might seem a little bit flippant. But I think it gets to the core of people‘s humanity. And I think that’s why it’s very shareable – because it’s a narrative journey, that has taken them [readers] somewhere and they want to share it with friends.
“I don’t buy into the idea that journalism has died. The ground has shifted – but people still want to know stuff. And the amount of information people are served up and can consume everyday is so overwhelming, that they do actually turn to websites that can sift through it. The reason we’ve been successful is we’ve tapped into this desire to know stuff and to be entertained.”
To help you decide if BuzzFeed is helping or harming the internet, here are Five Things Simon Crerar Told Us That You Might Not Know About BuzzFeed .
1. BuzzFeed covers stuff you might not expect it to.
“We are hiring a whole lot of journalists and reporters across the world. We have five people on our LGBT team. We have an international women’s work correspondent in Kenya who focuses on women’s rights. If you look under the long-form tab on the site there are articles that can be five, 10, 15,000 words long; traditional journalism, kind of like The New Yorker.”
2. BuzzFeed knows its lists are addictive. It’s on purpose.
“Most days, if you look at the top seven stories on BuzzFeed, they all have a number in the headline. People respond better to a list of numbers. It’s clear to them when they start how long it’s going to take them. There is something about the human mind that makes it compulsive, so if you like the first thing you see on the list, you want to see where it ends up. I’ve always been a list junkie, so that’s why it sucked me in.”
3. BuzzFeed breaks it down. So you can feel smart.
“We find something on the internet, one little piece of content, and we tell a story about how it fits and why people are confused, excited or outraged about it. We break it down, or find other pieces or images that tell the same kind of story. We will also package together how people are reacting on social media. Then it really gives someone who doesn’t know anything about it a sense of what this story is.”
4. These stories are most likely to go viral.
Stuff relating to the ‘90s seems to go particularly well; ‘90s TV shows and things people experienced growing up in the ‘90s. Every time we have done anything relating to the government it has had a huge response.
One of the biggest posts we did, that did hugely well in Australia, was when Tony Abbot said that Australia was basically empty before the British got here. We used that great map of indigenous languages, where there are, like, 400 different languages on it, and that went absolutely crazy for us.
5. BuzzFeed gets you.
In a sense, we’re trying to help people figure out who they are and what they identify with. And what they feel really passionate about. And so those quizzes, which might seem rally daft to people, the reason you do those and share them is it validates how you see the world. It gives you the sense of knowing yourself as a person and feeling that that’s you. It’s quite interesting to think that we’re sort of, with our site, helping people to figure that stuff out.
Simon Crerar will be part of a panel at Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas called: Cat Videos Will Save Journalism on August 31, 10.30am–11.30am.