The Flooded Zone

Ben Smith, shown here in the newsroom at BuzzFeed headquarters, December 11, 2018. in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The internet is vile and beautiful, awful and awesome. It has completely warped, ruined, and improved the news economy, and I wouldn’t be writing this without it. The Dispatch wouldn’t exist to publish me. Tablet couldn’t have given me a fellowship. My scribblings would’ve remained in a leather-bound notebook, never reaching the eyes of others, were it not for blogging on Medium. Perhaps surprisingly, we’ve arrived at a promising place for the digital press, with new publications relying on paid subscriptions and quality work instead of chasing clicks for ad revenue. But, as we move ahead, it’s worth looking back at what brought us here.

Enter Traffic, Ben Smith’s new book on the rise of online press. Smith writes, “Traffic was, literally, just the record of the request your desktop computer made of the computer hosting the article you were reading.” It quickly became the new oil of the digital economy, as Smith demonstrates by focusing on two men who were among the first to realize it was a monetizable commodity. Jonah Peretti, the “genius” behind Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, was obsessed with what makes a new piece of content spread to as many people as quickly as possible. In contrast, Nick Denton, the information libertine, serial entrepreneur, anti-elite member of the elite, was focused on how to get you to return to his sites again and again and again. He experimented on how to do this through a series of blogs, including Deadspin, Jezebel, and Gizmodo (along with lesser known, eventual failures like Valleywag and Oddjack). The most notable and infamous was the vicious digital gossip rag, Gawker.

Peretti and Denton are less widely known today—though Peretti was back in the news last month when BuzzFeed announced it would be shuttering BuzzFeed News (which, coincidentally, Smith helped found and then served as editor for eight years). Smith reminds us that they were pioneers who laid the rails of the modern online news ecosystem, and he takes us through the business decisions, technical innovations, and personal relationships that earned them billions of views and millions of dollars, and how their businesses ultimately shrunk or failed. 

Smith discusses the jargon-infused metrics that were the backbone of the early digital media era—unique visitors, “sentiment analysis,” search engine optimization—in a way that even the most stubborn Luddie would understand. And he reveals just how many elements of this early internet economy echo today. The Drudge Report functioned as “a kind of secret assignment editor” for the press, decades before Bari Weiss resigned from the New York Times, disgusted that “Twitter has become its ultimate editor.” Valleywag’s relentlessly critical take on “Big Tech” was decades ahead of the rest of the press, which remained for too long in a honeymoon phase of naïve technological optimism.  

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