No Haters vs. All Haters: The BuzzFeed / Gawker Battle for the Internet's Soul

Everything that is published online is censored. There are exceptions, but not many.

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When Nick Denton, the CEO of Gawker, said on Tuesday that his company and BuzzFeed are "two very different forces struggling for the soul of internet media," there was one obvious area that he didn't need to articulate: Gawker is more than happy to write about anything it wants. The fight over the internet's soul, in other words, is BuzzFeed's mantra (no haters) versus Gawker's: hate any- and everything you want.

Denton's comments came during a public company meeting he held on his sites' Kinja commenting system. "Our biggest competitor in media is Buzzfeed," Denton wrote in his response to a staffer's question, as Talking Points Memo pointed out. Then Denton called the site "pointless."

Buzzfeed is the perfect competitor — highly motivating. It is a fair fight; some earlier rivals like Gothamist required too much puffing up to make a plausible rival. And it's a meaningful fight, because Gawker Media and Buzzfeed represent two very different forces struggling for the soul of internet media.

That prompted responses like this,  pointing out that Gawker's vision for the internet also includes poop. Funny, but this was not Denton's point.

No haters, BuzzFeed's (in)famous hiring mantra, extends beyond its employees. It's reflected in BuzzFeed's content, praising supermarkets and happy things and Beyonce. And, if you want, you can pay BuzzFeed to help you praise yourself. When Mark Duffy was fired from the company (a yellow "cute" bubble telling him where to sign his termination papers), he said (in a post at Gawker) that BuzzFeed censored its content at the behest of its sponsors.

It's impossible not to consider the implications of that mantra in a broader sense. After Russia Today anchor Liz Wahl abruptly quit on-air last week, reporter Zaid Jalani wrote a Tumblr post comparing RT's editorial oversight (from Putin's Kremlin) with places he'd worked. When he was at the liberal news site ThinkProgress, for example, a post he'd written critiquing the Afghanistan surge infuriated the White House. Afterward, he says that he and his colleagues were "basically berated" for "creating daylight between us and Obama," prompting Jalani to question the extent to which any media outlet can operate outside the blessing of its sponsors and partners. (Update: ThinkProgress disagrees with this account, and rebuts it in depth in this post.) The journalistic mantra of speaking truth to power is often more constrained when speaking truth to the power that pays the bills.

Last December, Gawker's Tom Scocca wrote a piece criticizing "smarm" online — differentiating Gawker's snark from the self-righteousness and pretension he saw at other sites, like BuzzFeed. Where BuzzFeed draws a (hazy!) line on what it will and won't cover — no hating — Gawker's mantra is essentially the opposite. In an interview with Playboy (posted, again, on Kinja) Denton explained where he draws the lines of what can be written about. "The founding myth of Gawker," he said, "happens to be true."

Whenever you work at a newspaper, particularly a newspaper with high standards, you're struck by the gap between the story that appears in the paper the next day and what the journalist who wrote that story will tell you about it after deadline. The version they tell over a drink is much more interesting—legally riskier, sometimes more trivial, and sometimes it fits less neatly into the institution's narrative. Usually it's a lot truer. The very fact that a journalist will ask another journalist who has a story in the paper, "So what really happened?"—now, just think about that question. It's a powerful question. It's the essence of all meaningful gossip.

For Denton, publishing that story is fair game. It's why he holds company meetings in public. It's why Gawker is famous for writing posts tweaking Denton, like this one, making fun of something Denton posted on Facebook. Denton himself frequently comments on posts, not always complimentarily. He even used the comments to call out the veracity of one post. Hate whoever you want. Denton's not going to play Putin.

Of course the battle between Gawker and BuzzFeed is about traffic and the revenue that comes from that traffic. (For Gawker, that revenue is in ads. For BuzzFeed, it's in bolstering its claim that it can work its magic on sponsored posts.) But when Denton says that it's a struggle for "the soul of internet media," he clearly also means that it's about a vision for how online journalism should draw its boundaries. BuzzFeed is a business doing business stuff, which means it needs to clearly define its path. Gawker is about telling the stories that no one — including, sometimes, Denton — want to have told. That, Denton obviously thinks, isn't "pointless."

Update: Even as this was being written, Denton expounded on his personal dislike for BuzzFeed's Jonah Peretti in that same Kinja thread.

If he wasn't successful, he wouldn't be a worthy competitor. He's figured out the formula for shareable smarm, yes.

Fortunately, readers have other interests, such as information, debate and gossip.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.