BuzzFeed, Blue Checkmarks, and the End of an Internet Age

Three distinct crises unfolded online Thursday, but in a sense, they were all part of the same story. One was the shutdown of BuzzFeed News, the digital content company’s journalism operation, which ended a newsroom that launched in 2012, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2021, and at its peak employed a hundred reporters. Another was the disappearance from Twitter of most of the blue check marks, the tiny icons that verify the identity of celebrities and other public figures, including journalists. Elon Musk, who has been gradually taking Twitter apart since he took over the company last October, had long promised that anyone who didn’t pay for a Twitter subscription would lose the tick, which had come to represent a certain kind of prestige of Insider internet. (Pope Francis’ Twitter account also lost its blue seal). The fire served as an appropriate symbol: everything was exploding and everyone could watch.

Just a decade ago, Twitter and BuzzFeed were the popular poles of a nascent social Internet. Twitter, where the hive-mind of social media congregated, was faster and more fun than Facebook, more news-obsessed with niche cultural fandoms than Tumblr. BuzzFeed was one of the first media companies to fully embrace social media. Founded in 2006 by Jonah Peretti, who also co-founded the Huffington Post, he observed online trends and memes and created them. The site built entire articles aggregating funny tweets and pioneered digital personality quizzes in the vein of Which Harry Potter Character Are You? In 2011 Peretti hired journalist Ben Smith as managing editor. While the site has done investigative reporting on American election campaigns and international affairs, its most famous accomplishment may be a post about a photograph of a dress that looked blue and black or white and gold depending on how viewers perceived it. It got more than twenty-eight million views in one day. Watching both websites crumble at once adds to the already burgeoning sense that a certain age of the internet is over and that the rules they once thrived under have changed dramatically.

What exactly that era was is more difficult to pin down. Much of the previous decade of digital life was based on the idea that user-generated content was an ideal: we as denizens of the internet wanted to consume everything that was posted by other users like us, who were often people we knew as IRL or online friends. The content was supposed to be free, the thought went; the platforms job was to provide a fire hose of tweets, Instagram photos, YouTube videos and Facebook posts, which we would be left to navigate on our own. BuzzFeed has made its business curating the breadth of this user-generated content, highlighting and accelerating its most successful specimens, making social media seem like a fun place to be. (The company then leveraged its ability to hand-pick virality as a selling point for advertising clients.) Within the culture industries, BuzzFeed’s energy and youthful wit became an object of widespread jealousy. An infamous letter of advice written in the defunct, beloved blog started by Awl, I hate myself because I can’t work for BuzzFeed.

Ultimately, BuzzFeed relied too heavily on social media. Its news division lacked an independent business model, and its ability to ensure virality was more conducive to revenue streams like Tasty, a food content channel that now produces a line of cookware with Walmart. In a note to staff about the closure, Peretti wrote that he as CEO was to blame for being slow to accept that big platforms wouldn’t provide the distribution or financial backing needed to support premium and free journalism created specifically for social media. In other words, Facebook would not have made external content production profitable; why should he, when he had so many users willing to fill his feed for free and in turn fuel the platforms ad sales?

Twitter has survived on its chaotic energy. Over time, Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, has moved away from news, particularly in the wake of the 2016 election, to focus on promoting social interactions and shopping opportunities. Twitter, meanwhile, has remained a heated and relatively unfiltered arena for discussion. In 2020, the platform has been an invigorating space for the Black Lives Matter movement, urging people to emerge from pandemic isolation and take to the streets for protests. Twitter has never been the largest or most efficient social network, but it has played an outsized role. Musk’s takeover of the company last year, and his tumultuous attempt to reform it, has severely undermined that role. Musk gutted Twitter’s content moderation staff, which once provided protection against bots, misinformation and hate speech. Before, Twitter was dysfunctional; now it seems to barely work.

When the blue checkmarks disappeared this week, Twitter feeds suddenly felt laid bare: every account looked the same as every other, except those who were willing to keep checking by paying eight dollars a month. In the absence of verification, fake accounts quickly popped up for entities as diverse as NYT Cooking and the IRS, a certain prelude to scams. Few accounts still have blue checks, which now carry something of a stigma in the eyes of veteran users. Lots of people are still tweeting, but the negative vibes are palpable. In a recent essay, the Time magazine editor Willy Staley described Twitter’s current vibe as the part of dinner where only the serious drinkers stay.

In retrospect, the twenty-ten saw the emergence, growth, dominance and incipient decline of the largest social networks. All of us users have had the opportunity to learn the same lessons that Peretti did: we cannot rely on large digital platforms that are motivated above all by profit, and there is no guarantee that they will protect us or support us or work to deliver the best experiences possible. Instead, they will continue to encourage us to churn out content for free; they will work ruthlessly to capture our attention and then commodify it through every possible avenue. Those massive public networks are getting riskier, messier, and less appealing by the day; the rocket that has propelled their explosive growth is faltering.

The next decade of the internet is likely to produce more closed digital spaces that seek to correct the ills of big social media. The looming post-platform era, as it’s already called, will consist of smaller online communities that connect via group messaging, Reddit forums, Discord servers, and email newsletters. It won’t work on a public show like the Web we’ve become accustomed to; virality may no longer be the goal. But it could at least offer a less exploitative mode of existence online. In some ways, it will resemble an older version of the Internet, operating on a tried and true principle: friends are more trustworthy than strangers.

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