Feeding the Buzz: A Conversation with Buzzfeed EIC Ben Smith

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We wish we had a gif.

We wish we had a gif.

Last night, the Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs, along with the Society of Professional Journalists, brought the man responsible for much of Columbia’s procrastination and listification to campus—Ben Smith, former Politico writer and current Editor-in-Chief of Buzzfeed. Since Buzzfeed is everything Bwog has ever wanted to be, we went to check it out—here’s the report from Reason #7 To Go To Every Bwog Party, Artur Renault.

I’ll be honest—when I signed up to go watch the guy from Buzzfeed talk, I didn’t expect to really agree with anything he said about his website and journalism. I went there with the same kind of morbid curiosity that drove me to watch the Justin Bieber movie. In my mind, Buzzfeed was a collection of amusing lists and frivolous quizzes, and I half-expected Ben Smith to talk about these things like they were the future of journalism, the revolutionary new voice of the people, here to replace most forms of investigative reporting. Maybe I’d been watching too much Netflix; this event changed my perspective on journalism and on light entertainment in a profound way.

The first event was a small dinner in a Lerner room full of J-School students who somehow all had British accents; the second was a large lecture in Roone. When Ben walked into both of these places, several voices greeted him like they knew him. At the dinner, he had to wait until everyone had gotten their share of baked ziti and garlic knots; as Bwoggers know, food is the first order of business.

“I didn’t realize that this didn’t count!”—he interrupted, after being “informed” that there was actually a larger lecture after the first one. This was in the middle of his narrative of how the journalistic scene has changed during his career. He described how back in 2004 blogs were the only way of knowing of an event on the same day that it happened, since no news outlets had thought of actually updating their websites in real-time. Ben opened the first of these blogs in New York, but eventually this system was replaced by Twitter.

Then Jonah Peretti, CEO of Buzzfeed, approached Ben to revolutionize what was then a “platform for drunk photos and photos of kids.” He wanted to build news on the assumption of people sharing it. Ben had no idea what he was talking about; but eventually he joined and Buzzfeed became what it is today.

But what is Buzzfeed today? Many people in the room seemed to share a preconceived notion similar to mine, and found it hard to reconcile Buzzfeed’s fame as an entertainment website with the idea of news. Ben himself was a former writer for Politico, the New York Daily News, and the New York Observer, among others, and said that his obsession is breaking news. Looking at Buzzfeed’s page, one will see a pretty straight mixture of news and more fun pieces. Ben implied that this separation wasn’t as strong as we thought. The same people read both content; neither one is made to draw you in and feed you the other, and Buzzfeed doesn’t try to decide which one is morally superior. The users decide what they like, and the website gives them what they like.

Inevitably, the lighter content will seem dominant. Ben rejected the idea that this kind of content is “for the masses,” and described that as “such an Ivy League thing to say.” He explained it like so: “All of humanity is interested in cute animals; only people interested in politics are interested in politics.” To him, this kind of content is not easier to produce than “normal” news. “Cats are a competitive market…It’s really hard to make a quiz that will be seen by 20 million people.”

He also didn’t see evidence of our attention spans lowering; he doesn’t think people have changed all that much. When asked about lists, which Ben is comfortable as a sort of trademark of Buzzfeed, he reminded us that they’ve always been around. “Google gives you results in a list. The Bible is a list. The Odyssey: that’s a list of 24 things Odysseus did.” And in one fell swoop, he made us realize our generation’s self-perceived stupidity is just a pattern in human history.

And how much has Buzzfeed stuck to its original goal of being news based on the assumption of people sharing it? Quite a bit. In fact, Ben pays very little attention to Buzzfeed’s homepage, since very few users actually access it. They reach Buzzfeed articles via Facebook, Twitter, and more recently WhatsApp links. Now Buzzfeed is trying to spread these worldwide, opening some writing offices around the world and translating some of their most universal articles to French, Spanish, and Portuguese using the language-learning service Duolingo.

When asked, “Why Portuguese?” Ben answered, “Because Brazil is huge and amazing and Brazilian Internet is crazy.” As a Brazilian, I can confirm this and can give anyone interested some places to start.

Overall, Ben Smith came across as a very professional and passionate journalist who is very conscious of the website he’s running and the criticism towards it. He was very comfortable and open about the role of different kinds of content within Buzzfeed, and the importance of sharing and communication in the Internet age.

In fact, when I talked to him just after the meeting, he said that he knows Bwog, and that a lot of cool people came out of Bwog. So you heard it here first, guys: Ben Smith of Buzzfeed thinks Bwog is cool.

Celebrity endorsement via Jacqueline Luo/CORE

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  1. The Bible  

    is not a list. It's just a fictional book containing a list.

  2. this review

    is very entertaining, engaging, and well written! Love it, Bwog!

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