The rise of online media facilitated a revolution that upended old giants but came at a terrible cost, according to the former editor of BuzzFeed, and ultimately helped old giants become new.
- Ben Smith, the former editor of BuzzFeed and current editor of Semafor, is the author of Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion In the Billion-Dollar Race To Go Viral, which was released Tuesday.
- The book is an insider story about the internal failures of new media—Gawker, HuffPost, and BuzzFeed—and how the landscape they created as a way for young progressives to change the status quo has been adopted by conservatives to facilitate populist right-wing political movements.
- With the “age of disinformation,” as Smith calls it, continuing to reign and affect everything from pandemic and climate response to the outcome of presidential elections, Smith reflects on how the engagement-driven approach to the internet has unleashed digital chaos.
Why It’s Important
These websites began in the early 2000s, run by colleagues like Jonah Peretti and Nick Denton, and helped facilitate the success of President Barrack Obama’s 2008 election. Now, 15 years later, Smith is more agnostic about new media.
The same technology he used was similarly used by prominent conservatives like Andrew Breitbart, Matt Drudge, and Steve Bannon—who themselves facilitated the rise of movement-driven politicians like Donald Trump and Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Smith entered the landscape believing new media would give new startups the edge to take the lead and leave the old giants in the dust. However, as The Guardian’s book review notes, technology is agnostic and old media was able to learn from its mistakes.
The New York Times is no longer struggling to keep the lights on, while BuzzFeed News shuttered its doors last week. Fox News even fired the most popular cable news host in America, who is likely to found his own new media company. The media landscape continues to shift to this day.
“Those of us who work in media, politics, and technology are largely concerned now with figuring out how to hold these failing institutions together or to build new ones that are resistant to the forces we helped unleash,” says Smith.
Smith also reports that Peretti reportedly regrets not taking Bob Iger’s buyout offer of BuzzFeed in 2013, with company executives calling it one of the “dumbest in the history of digital media.” At the time, a buyout seemed ideal for all parties involved. Disney saw BuzzFeed as a growing company with the possibility that it could grow out of the relationship.
Despite his executives begging him to take the deal, Peretti eventually turned down the offer, with Iger allegedly saying, “That company will never be worth what it would have been worth with us.”