For the past few weeks, videos from Buzzfeed have popped up in my Youtube recommendations. I guess nostalgia is coded in the algorithms. Either way, I fell for it. My past viewing history informed Youtube of my possible current interests, so it is merely my past self suggesting content to my current self, right?
I tend to perceive this as an iterative cycle of optimization: We search for what we are interested in, the platforms offer suggestions based on our behavior, we again make decisions when we browse the platforms with advertisements embedded and the algorithms are refined in this process. But what is the driving force behind this cycle? Our data, our attention, our time. The rhetoric of automation is merely delusional. The platforms create the impression that they are helping us find the right content, but the hidden labor of recommendation algorithms is performed by us. Our attention is extracted like raw materials, and to stay on the platforms for social participation, we are forced to pay more attention and make more decisions for the platform’s profit maximization. In fact, the more time we spend on the platforms, the more time we have to spend to stay on the platforms.
Attention is an intriguing concept: We don’t exactly have control over what we pay our attention to, and we cannot necessarily overlook something we’re already paying attention to. With everything now first being fed into these tech giants before they turn to demand our attention, our attention is enslaved in the information economy. We no longer have full autonomy over what we spend our time consuming with the endless browsing we have to perform for the “free” platforms.
As for Buzzfeed, the company rose to prominence by leveraging this new business model based on attention colonialism. The new media company’s strategy is clear –– more clicks, more money. Buzzfeed uses every way conceivable to grab your attention to click on their content, but their reliance on social media platforms has posed a threat to their longevity. When the algorithms make decisions based on the interests of the social media platforms, how can new media companies gain visibility? It doesn’t sound right if new media companies “pay” the platforms to have their content promoted in the first place. The platformization of media is challenging the very distinction between a media company and a content creator.
So I watched the Buzzfeed video. After a year of not getting exposed to any Buzzfeed content, I couldn’t recognize any of the new Buzzfeed people. The video does not feature any of the big names I’m familiar with because they have all left Buzzfeed. Remember when there was a wave of prominent producers leaving Buzzfeed to embark on their journey as content creators? The “Why I Left Buzzfeed” genre became sensational hits and garnered more views than the videos Buzzfeed produced at the time. The new people still share the likable Buzzfeed spirit, but they’re just not the Try Guys, Safiya Nygaard or Michelle Khare.
A netizen myth emerged that Buzzfeed is dying with these people leaving. Have trends proved this assertion right? Judging by the views of their recent videos, it is indeed slowly dying in people’s attention. What happened?
With the platformization of media, branding for media companies has been a difficult task. In the new media landscape, it is far more common for people to recognize personalities rather than non-human brands. (On the other hand, we don’t just look at humans. There are non-human personalities that might be entirely artificial yet immensely attention-grabbing). With Buzzfeed losing its known faces, it is getting increasingly challenging for the company to retain its presence in the audience’s mind. Buzzfeed doesn’t just fail to retain its stars, it has also been laying off its emerging talents. While the business itself is still profitable, such practices to help it remain profitable have destructively hurt the branding of the company. Influencers now dominate new media, and companies are struggling to keep up with that.
The most notable exception to this rule of celebrity dominance in the new media landscape is perhaps in the realm of journalism. When people look for quality news, they look for The New York Times or The Washington Post, but we won’t necessarily be able to recognize Nate Silver from FiveThirtyEight or Ezra Klein from Vox. In the case of Buzzfeed, its identity crisis is also rooted in its hybridity of news and entertainment. It is often overlooked that Buzzfeed News is, in fact, a reputable news outlet that has been finalists for Pulitzer Prizes for its contribution to investigative journalism. Nonetheless, the popular image of Buzzfeed as an entertainment company obscures its position as a media company. With Buzzfeed blurring the line between news and entertainment, the company as a brand is having a hard time standing out. It is not as trustworthy as The Atlantic, but it is also not as interesting as Kim Kardashian.
So, with Buzzfeed News’s editor-in-chief Ben Smith moving to The New York Times as the next media columnist, are we witnessing the burst of the digital media bubble? I shall say not yet. Digital media consumption is at an all-time high. What we are seeing now is a stormy reshuffling of the organizational hierarchies of the new media landscape. In my opinion, a radical restructuring of the business model rooted in attention colonialism is in urgent need of radical refashioning, or else we will just spend an absurd amount of time reading and watching nothing.
Stephen Yang is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rewiring Technoculture runs alternate Mondays this semester.