Ben Smith thought that he’d be spending the end of April banking interviews about his book that goes on sale next week. It’s not working out that way. Instead, the celebrated news maven—who slung scoops at Politico, launched BuzzFeed News, covered media for The New York Times, and is now cofounder of the buzzy Semafor news startup—found himself bloviating on television and podcasts about the firing of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and CNN’s Don Lemon, icons of a 40-year-old cable news industry that predates the internet. In other appearances, he was asked to weigh in on his creation BuzzFeed News, whose plug was pulled so recently that its pixels are still ghosting the screen. The irony isn’t lost on him. “Here I am on CBS talking about the demise of BuzzFeed News,” he says, swilling coffee with me after doing a Mornings hit. “CBS is still standing!” (Actually, the hosts didn’t ask him about BuzzFeed.)
Smith is enough of a hustler to understand that any exposure is an opportunity—hey, CBS host Gayle King did say she couldn’t wait to read his book—but the experience was in a sense sobering. Traffic: Genius, Rivalry and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral is an account of what once looked like an upbeat development in a news industry that’s been hobbled since the internet kneecapped it two decades ago. In the eyes of his protagonists, BuzzFeed cofounder and CEO Jonah Peretti and chief Gawker Nick Denton, the age of viral content presented an opportunity for a feisty, less fussy approach to journalism that would level barriers between publications and readers.
As the first editor of BuzzFeed News, Smith himself concedes he was among those who naively championed this dream, which is not a great look for a reporter whose work more characteristically benefits from a well-functioning bullshit detector. Fortunately, Smith removed his rose-colored glasses while writing Traffic, which artfully sketches the rise and fall of a movement whose decline is embodied in BuzzFeed’s woes and Gawker’s death. (When discussing his new venture, Semafor, however, the pink-hued spectacles are very much in place.)
Smith had never thought of himself as an author—his normal impulse is to hit the publish button with the frequency of a carnival chicken. But he undertook the yearslong project motivated both by pandemic boredom and a desire to tell the story of two men who saw the rise of social media as a chance to supercharge content distribution and bypass legacy gatekeepers. In the course of reporting the book, Smith also uncovered an underreported wrinkle: The left-wingers behind the viral-news movement were aided and abetted by radical conservatives who wound up using those lessons to construct an alt-right establishment that rose all the way to the White House.
Steve Bannon and Andrew Breitbart were key figures in the Huffington Post, which Peretti helped lead even while launching BuzzFeed. Smith himself hired right-winger Benny Johnson. Another early BuzzFeeder, a meme-wrangler known as Baked Alaska, was among those storming the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Digital power once was celebrated as a force behind Barack Obama’s rise. Who knew that the viral juice of silly listicles and exploding watermelons would be effectively weaponized by Donald Trump and the MAGA right?
Nonetheless, Smith’s story of two East Coast news organizations is only a slice of a bigger phenomenon—about the power of tech platforms based in Silicon Valley. Geeks, not newsies, were the actual engineers of virality. In the closing pages of Traffic, Smith admits his well-founded fears that his narrative—despite compelling characters and its capture of a moment when journalists began chasing traffic with the fervor once devoted to chasing scoops—might be like Tom Stoppard’s play about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which focused on peripheral characters in Shakespeare’s masterpiece who were prisoners to forces beyond their control. In that sense Mark Zuckerberg is Traffic’s Hamlet, glimpsed only fleetingly, but firmly in control of the fate of the news outlets that depended on his links.
BuzzFeed and Gawker—and way too much of the news industry—became addicts of dashboards whose numbers rose when Facebook and other platforms boosted their stories. (Nick Denton even tied his writers’ paychecks to page views.) But those stratospheric numbers were entirely dependent on social links, which soared or slumped depending on the whims of the tech companies.
Take BuzzFeed’s most triumphant moment—the Dress, a photo of a striped frock whose color was debatable. Hundreds of millions viewed the post—at one point BuzzFeed’s servers handled 700,000 people simultaneously pondering the fabled schmatta. Smith describes it as “an unmitigated triumph.” Well, maybe not so unmitigated. He also reports that Facebook’s Adam Mosseri (then in charge of the News Feed) later told Peretti that the phenomenon troubled him. “To [Facebook] the Dress hadn’t been a goofy triumph: It had been kind of a bug, something that scared them,” Smith writes, because the company couldn’t control the repercussions. Ultimately, Facebook made algorithmic adjustments that blew up BuzzFeed’s business model.
Live by the dashboard, die by the dashboard.
Given the cautionary nature of Smith’s tale, it’s surprising that he left The New York Times (an unexpected winner in Smith’s story that figured out how to build its revenues by subscriptions and crossword puzzles) to cofound a news startup. But, rosy goggles back in place, he insists that Semafor can negotiate a post-viral news industry by controlling costs and growing methodically. Its newsletter-style distribution makes it less dependent of platforms, he says, and it’s started a thriving events business. Smith also claims that disenchantment with Facebook and Twitter has led to a resurgence of people visiting news site homepages. If he’s lucky, Smith won’t find himself the subject of some future book with the word delusion in the subtitle.
I wrote about Nick Denton and his blog empire in June 2004, getting a firsthand look at the way he launched the various components of what would be known as the Gawker network. Sharp-eyed readers will find a prescient quote from my former Newsweek colleague Mickey Kaus, who said that a potential libel suit was Gawker’s Achilles’ heel. Here’s a glimpse of the origin story of Wonkette, a political gossip blog that burned hot and later burned out.
Denton’s next blog was a Capital-ized version of Gawker that hinged on finding a writer who took to political gossip as wittily as Spiers had taken on New York. The solution was Ana Marie Cox, an acid-tongued redhead from Nebraska. She had worked for Suck before moving east with her husband. At The Chronicle of Higher Education, “I wasn’t a good fit.” And she was fired after six weeks at The American Prospect for, among other things, “not being civil to colleagues.” She was working as “a content monkey” for AOL when Denton appeared in an instant message last October, wooing her to do the Gawker thing in DC. Denton, who is very hands-on in the early days of a new blog, described the project in his instant message:
Denton: Like I really want to know: who throws the best dinner parties in DC; why they’re so desperately unglamorous; whether young Reps and Dems find it hot to date across party lines; whether [James] Carville and [Mary] Matalin really live their lives out in public; how their hair gets that way; what politicians say when they’re asking for money; how badly the Pentagon bureaucracy hates Rumsfeld. I want to understand how DC works, not the mechanics of cloture, but the social and political power lines. Like: If I was to come to DC, whom would I have to schmooze, how could I conquer the town, what are the things about DC that the newspapers never tell you?
Cox: that is a really tall order for someone getting paid $1500/mo.
Ask Me One Thing
Arielle asks, “Are we really all going to die because of AGI?”
Thanks for the question, Arielle. The lightning-fast rise of scary-smart AI models has elevated this question—long a favorite of science fiction writers—to a legitimate subject for debate. To be sure, we aren’t even close to what is sometimes called artificial general intelligence yet, but it’s now clear that silicon super brains are a real possibility. Once that happens, some claim, either inadvertently or intentionally, those computers will wipe out humanity.
Some still find the concept preposterous. Even if we reach what might be considered to be AGI, that doesn’t mean those things will be sentient, and certainly not to the point where they’d make a conscious decision to wipe us out. (Maybe not a smart decision, since those bots would presumably need low-wage workers to swap out the chips in those data centers that power the models.) A popular strain of thought is that a powerful bot with access to infrastructure might not realize that its methods of fulfilling a particular mission might incidentally remove the conditions necessary for humans to survive. That seems a theoretical stretch, too. But it’s striking that some of the voices that express those doomsday concerns are those who are actually building those advanced models. A much-cited survey found that half the AI scientists who filled out the forms (a small sample to be sure) believed there was at least a 10 percent chance that it would end humanity. Some are questioning the validity of that survey. Still, the question arises: If these scientists believe that continuing their work might kill us all, why are they doing it?
No one knows how real the threat is. But take a step back. We live in a world where thousands of nuclear weapons are targeting key population centers. If just some of those are launched, humanity may well go bye-bye. Also, if we don’t mitigate climate change, the planet may be inhabitable. The fact is human beings have been creating conditions for our demise for a long time, and along the way we kill each other with depressing regularity. If we do get an all-knowing general AI, I’d ask it this question first: What’s wrong with us?
You can submit questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.
End Times Chronicle
The Northern Lights appeared last week in Arizona, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Can I get a refund for that Finland igloo vacation I just booked?
Last but Not Least
The next big thing in computers? Analog.
Also for analog fans: the best turntables for your vinyl records.
Inside Microsoft’s AI transformation of Bing.
It took balls to write this story.