Eight years ago, the internet-connected world population seemed divided over a single question: is the dress in the photo blue and black or white and gold?
A stranger sent an email to a BuzzFeed employee saying that people were going crazy over a photo of a dress that she had posted on Tumblr (a social network that is now almost extinct). Part saw the piece of one color, part was sure it was another.
Cates Holderness looked at the photo, rough and torn, and shared the question with her editorial colleagues. A little later, 20 people were debating around her table, each with their own certainty.
In a two-line text, Cates asked the question on the website, at 8:14 pm: “What colors is this dress in?”, and left; February 26, 2015 became BuzzFeed’s “greatest day on the internet”.
This story is recovered in “Traffic”, a book released by Ben Smith, editor in chief of BuzzFeed from 2011 to 2020, former media columnist for the New York Times and now head of Semafor, co-founded by him. The work does not have a release date in Brazil.
The book tells the story of “genius, rivalry and disillusionment in the billion dollar race to go viral” of American media outlets like BuzzFeed and Huffington Post, which emerged with modern social media, helped shape a new culture of internet journalism and submerged.
As a privileged witness and several times the protagonist of the plots of this 2010s scene, Smith exposes backstage business, party intrigues and detailed profiles of digital communication pioneers, especially Nick Denton, founder of sites like Gawker and Gizmodo, and Jonah Peretti , co-founder of BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post.
Conservative journalists Andrew Breitbart, Matt Drudge and even Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s strategist, also appear as relevant figures in this circuit.
The book chronicles the economic race to establish itself as a new media company in Facebook’s golden age. It deals with discussions that arose more than a decade ago and are far from being pacified.
The relationship between journalism, politics and algorithm, the game of strength between communication companies and social networks, the rules imposed by big techs and the digital rise of far-right leaders appear from the story of young people who wanted to test new uses of Internet.
It is no longer a book about Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, but about those who wanted to dominate or circumvent the rules of Silicon Valley technologies.
The main story takes place in offices in SoHo, a neighborhood in New York, where the premise was to generate a lot of traffic on the internet, clicks. It is from this scene, says Smith, that the basis for measuring audience on the internet was created, just as all major journalism vehicles do today — or as influencers do in their TikTok accounts too.
The models for selling advertising online and for monitoring the success of any web page were created in the orbit of the characters portrayed by Smith (and to some extent by him).
The photo of the dress — seen by 67% of people as white and gold and 33% as black and blue, according to the BuzzFeed poll — is no mere anecdote about universal online mobilization. It’s the kind of joke that Peretti envisioned from the first viral content of his authorship, created from an email exchange with Nike.
As a young man, Peretti wanted to customize a Nike shoe with an expletive. Faced with refusals by the company, he sent a final request via email: “Can you please send me a picture of the 10-year-old Vietnamese girl who is making my sneakers?”
He forwarded the message exchange with Nike to ten friends, and soon the story escalated to several inboxes, in the kind of email virality that became famous in the United States. Within weeks, he was explaining the case in a nationally televised interview on NBC’s Today Show.
On BuzzFeed, the dress gathered more than 700,000 people at the same time in a single link, an astronomical feat at the time. For Facebook, however, the dress became a concern. The publication did not go around the social network like other successful contents, which follow a certain pattern of ascension. It’s as if he had broken the network’s imaginary structures.
Company executives came to believe that they had zero control over the sprawling power of algorithms. “The dress was harmless, but the next meme to colonize the entire platform in a matter of minutes might not be, and that one had already moved too fast for the Menlo Park team. [cidade-sede do Facebook] control,” writes Smith, after retrieving a concerned conversation a company director had with Peretti at a party.
It was the last time content like this went viral on BuzzFeed. In the following years, Facebook began to narrow the recommendations of its algorithms to people and try to keep them in its bubbles – which, it is known, had good and bad consequences.
The book focuses, for the most part, on the relationship between the new press, which wanted to differentiate itself from traditional newspapers, and the models and metrics imposed by Facebook and Twitter. It shows how these new sites worked with Mark Zuckerberg’s network, not against it. In the end, it shows how they struggle to survive.
“Traffic” describes a New York blogger scene prior to these platforms, at a time when investors were once again interested in technology after the internet bubble, a crisis that lasted until the mid-2000s.
Both Nick Denton and Jonah Peretti captured talent from the blogosphere, who became journalists and, sometimes, had their scoops covered by the mainstream press.
Denton, calculating, reclusive, and social status investigator, viewed the Internet as a business; Peretti, inventive and left-wing activist, as “a place for social experiments”. The story of both is intertwined by social and geographic connections, as their offices were in the same neighborhood, and by the insane search for clicks, when the digital advertising model was not yet so obvious.
The first launched Gawker, a controversial vehicle for gossip, a precursor to the dissemination of nude celebrities on a large scale, by the also extinct “sex tapes”. The site terrorized celebrities and politicians and went bankrupt after losing a painful court case to wrestler Hulk Hogan, whose lawyers were paid by billionaire Peter Thiel, who wanted revenge for a malicious title on the site leaked years ago.
Peretti, in turn, allied with Arianna Huffington, a former conservative and later independent candidate for governor of California, and Kenneth Lerer, co-founding the Huffington Post. Peretti was the boy-genius behind Huff, and he dabbled in BuzzFeed in his spare time until it became his main venture.
Smith reconstructs the entry of political campaigns into social networks. It shows how Peretti captured—with data, not impressions—that Barack Obama was more “viralable” than Hillary Clinton before the 2008 Democratic primary. The Huffington Post embraced the Obama campaign—Arianna was Hillary’s former rival, and Kenny was a supporter the then senator.
A few years later, the author recalls, social networks, until then populated by progressive defenders of decentralized communication, were only interested in one name, Donald Trump.
Smith brings divisive moments from this recent era in American politics. BuzzFeed analyzed “sentiment data” provided by Facebook — basically a ranking of positive and negative public reactions to a certain topic on the internet.
The company suddenly stopped sharing this information. “A Facebook employee told me that it was a lot of work to maintain the database, although I’m a little skeptical about that story,” he writes.
He believes the company stopped passing on the data because perhaps those young Palo Alto employees, once proud of founding the house of “Obama’s liberal populism”, were ashamed to see it “invaded by angry baby boomers who loved Donald Trump “.
Smith does not take risks with futurology about media and journalism in the face of uncertainties about the business model of this market. He understands that “the internet”, as it is conventionally called what happens on the networks, has turned society itself and that the forces that dominate it —be it left-wing or right-wing populism— are social forces, not digital ones. A month after Smith published the book, BuzzFeed shut down its news division.