The Internet of the 2010s Ended Today

BuzzFeed News was more than a website: It defined an era.

A neon sign reading 'BuzzFeed.News' flickers red against a black background
Illustration by Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic

If you’re curious to know what it was like to work at BuzzFeed News in the salad days of the mid-2010s, here is a representative anecdote: I was sitting at my desk one morning, dreadfully hungover and editing a story titled “The Definitive Oral History of the Wikipedia Photo for ‘Grinding,’” when the sounds of a screaming man broke my trance. I looked up to see Tracy Morgan three feet away, surrounded by a small entourage of handlers.

Morgan was barreling through the office, lifting his shirt up, smacking his belly, and cracking jokes about how pale all of us internet writers looked. I remember our lone investigative reporter, Alex Campbell, scurrying away from his desk, a row away from mine, to continue his reporting call in silence. A few months later, the story he’d been working on would help free an innocent woman from prison. Morgan’s chattering faded, and the newsroom returned to its ambient humming of frenetic keyboard clacking—the sound of the internet being made. Hardly anyone had batted an eye.

I worked at BuzzFeed News for nearly six years—from March 2013 until January 2019. For most of that time, it felt a bit like standing in the eye of the hurricane that is the internet. Glorious chaos was everywhere around you, yet it felt like the perfect vantage to observe the commercial web grow up. I don’t mean to sound self-aggrandizing, but it is legitimately hard to capture the cultural relevance of BuzzFeed to the media landscape of the mid-2010s, and the excitement and centrality of the organization’s approach to news. There was “The Dress,” a bit of internet ephemera that went so viral, we joked that that day might have been the last good one on the internet. There was the Facebook Live experiment in which two bored staffers got 800,000 people to concurrently watch them put rubber bands on a watermelon until it exploded—a piece of content that will live in “pivot to video” infamy.

And for an offshoot of a place (somewhat unfairly) known as a listicle and cat-video factory, BuzzFeed News had an outsize political influence. It published a Donald Trump profile so scathing that it very well may have goaded him into running for president. We got Barack Obama to use a selfie stick and also published the Steele dossier. Once, I got assigned to follow exotic dancers around at a predawn chicken-wing-eating contest. During Trump’s first press conference as president-elect, I stood next to our editor in chief and watched the soon-to-be leader of the free world single us out as a “failing pile of garbage.” Within an hour, we were selling shirts plastered with the phrase. BuzzFeed News contained multitudes.

One can attribute the site’s cultural relevance, the industry enthusiasm around the work, and even the rivalries and haters to BuzzFeed News’s unofficial mission: to report on the internet like it was a real place, and to tell stories in the honest, casual tone of the web. At the time I joined, this was, if not a new kind of journalism, certainly an updated model for seeking out stories—one that’s now been fully absorbed by the mainstream. At its simplest, it might have meant mining a viral tweet or Reddit thread for ideas, but more often than not, it meant bearing witness to the joy, chaos, and horrors that would pour across our timelines every day and using them as a starting point for real reporting. It meant realizing, as I and my colleagues did, during the on- and offline manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers, that a new culture of internet vigilantism was beginning to take hold in digital communities and that the media no longer unilaterally shaped broad news narratives.

Reporting on the internet like it was a real place led some of my colleagues to peer around corners of our politics and culture. In 2015, Joseph Bernstein outlined the way that “various reactionary forces have coalesced into a larger, coherent counterculture”—a phenomenon bubbling up in message boards such as 4chan that he called a “Chanterculture.” To read the piece now is to see the following half decade—reactionary MAGA politics, Trump’s troll armies, our current digital culture warring—laid out plainly. The Chanterculture story is a BuzzFeed News archetype: Movements like this weren’t hard to see if you were spending time in these communities and taking the people in them seriously. Most news organizations, however, weren’t doing that.

People afflicted with Business School Brain who didn’t understand BuzzFeed News (including one of the company’s lead investors) often described it like a tech start-up. This was true only in the sense that the company had an amazing, dynamic publishing platform—a content-management system that updated almost daily with new features based on writer input. But the secret behind BuzzFeed News had nothing to do with technology (or even moving fast). The secret was cultural. Despite the site’s constant bad reputation as a click farm, I was never once told to chase traffic. No editor ever discussed referrals or clicks. The emphasis was on doing the old-fashioned thing: finding an original story that told people something new, held people to account, or simply delighted. The traffic would come.

The place was obsessed with story, not prestige, and its ambition was nearly boundless. It wasn’t afraid of devoting considerable resources to being silly as long as the narrative was good. (The company enabled me to spend weeks reporting an oral history of one day on the internet, sent me to cover political campaigns and rallies, agreed to let me stay in the guest room of a porn producer’s New Hampshire BDSM cabin, and allowed me fly to Sweden to get a microchip implanted in my hand). And the company supported hard, serious journalism around the world. As one of my colleagues reminded me today, a common refrain during the BuzzFeed News heyday was that it felt like a fake job. Not because it wasn’t serious work, but because getting paid to work there often felt like getting away with something.

The legacy of BuzzFeed News has two components. The first I described above. This legacy lives on in the stories, as well as the alumni network of brilliant writers, reporters, editors, and artists, who now work in every newsroom on the planet. (There are five of us here at The Atlantic.) The second part is, sadly, much more familiar: It is the tragic story of the digital-media industry writ large. It is a familiar tale of mismanagement; low interest rates; unrealistic expectations; greedy, extractive venture capitalists; and the impossibility of exponential growth.

If the job felt fake, that’s because, in the harshest financial terms, it was. In 2014, the venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz invested $50 million into BuzzFeed News, a number that makes my stomach drop now. I was the technology editor at the time and remember getting pulled into a meeting about it, mostly as a heads-up and an assurance that the investment from Silicon Valley’s buzziest firm would not influence how we covered tech. This turned out to be true. Reporting on tech platforms while working at BuzzFeed News always felt like living in the town whose local politics you covered—you lived it and you wrote about it.

Those next few years were a blur. The new-hire emails came in so fast that I stopped opening them. It all made sense then, and it all would’ve made at least some sense to you, too, if you were 28 and living a Millennial subsidy life, taking cheap Ubers and watching Silicon Valley grow invincible. Today, it looks like the inevitable fate-sealing that comes from making a deal with the venture-capital devil.

BuzzFeed News was not, as Andreessen Horowitz’s Chris Dixon once said, a “full-stack startup.” This should’ve been blindingly obvious. The business of news gathering—not content creation—is expensive, and it does not scale. BuzzFeed News’s bread and butter—telling the internet’s stories and leveraging its systems to promote them—was only nominally a technology strategy, and one that was yoked to the success of other venture-funded social-media companies, including Facebook. The fate of the entire digital-media ecosystem was dependent on the line going up and to the right in perpetuity—or at least until the moneymen saw their returns. Just how infectious was this “perpetual growth” mindset? In the mid-2010s, BuzzFeed turned down a rumored $500 million acquisition offer from Disney, perhaps in part because it wanted to become Disney.

Around the time I left in 2019, it became clear that browsing and attention habits were shifting, turning places like Facebook into ghost towns for politically radicalized Boomers. This was the first time I heard internal rumblings of investor concern. I started hearing people whisper the word profitability—a term I’d never had occasion to hear around the office—a lot more. It took less than four years to fully internalize the lesson that venture capitalism is just a form of gambling: You invest in 10 companies to make money off one, and employees are the chips. News, no matter how much technology you wrap around it, may be a public good, but if you’re looking for Facebook-level exits, it’s a bad bet.

I am sad and angry that the extractive practices of modern finance, the whims of rich and powerful investors, and the race-to-the-bottom economics of the digital-media industry have stripped BuzzFeed for parts. I’m worried, on a practical level, about what might happen to the site’s archives, as well as the nearly 200 people the company plans to lay off. What’s left of the company (including the good, hard-working employees who are not fired) will have to navigate the wreckage created by an industry with a broken economic model. It seems likely that a zombified form of BuzzFeed will become the embodiment of everything the previous version wasn’t: terrified, obsessed with squeezing every ounce of shareholder value from its employees, and constantly bending to the forces of new technology like artificial intelligence, rather than harnessing and growing alongside them.

BuzzFeed News was oriented around the mission of finding, celebrating, and chronicling the indelible humanity pouring out of every nook and cranny of the internet, so it makes sense that any iteration that comes next will be more interested in employing machines to create content. The BuzzFeed era of media is now officially over. What comes next in the ChatGPT era is likely to be just as disruptive, but I doubt it’ll be as joyous and chaotic. And I guarantee it’ll feel less human.