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The Flooded Zone

Review of ‘Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral’ by Ben Smith.

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.  

The best moments come when Smith steps away from his main protagonists and pulls back the curtain on innovators and oddballs like Arianna Huffington, Netscape founder and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen and his business partner Chris Dixon, New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., as well as Steve Bannon, Matt Drudge, provocateur James O’Keefe, and BuzzFeed reporter-turned-right-wing-troll Benny Johnson. 

That’s a great setup, with a compelling cast and many rich themes to consider. While Smith’s nearness to the subject provides an interesting perspective, it also hampers the narrative, which ends up a little removed, overly mechanical, and too slight.

Readers learn a lot about the dynamics in HuffPost’s early leadership, Andrew Breitbart’s servile relationship with Matt Drudge, and Denton’s apathetic managerial style, but these anecdotes rarely extend outside office hours. You want to get inside the characters’ heads, inside their homes, learn about their personal lives and what made them who they are. But you don’t get much of that. Drudge and Huffington remain outlines. Aside from a few points describing him as a buff gay man, the longest description of Drudge is these two lines: 

“Matt Drudge was, in fact an obscure, sallow, twenty-nine-year-old, gossipmonger working as a clerk for CBS—which meant, in reality, folding T-shirts in the gift shop, eking out a living. At night, though, he was a new kind of journalist, emailing out a news digest that ranged from political scandal to early Hollywood box office numbers.”

That’s great, but that’s it, and you feel there’s so much more there, given that Matt Drudge is such an important figure in this landscape, and a fascinating enigma.

Smith’s protagonists are treated better, with detailed, narrative backstories, and more shades to their personalities, but, even so, there’s a degree of removal. But the real trouble comes from the handling of one character, who enters at the halfway mark, in Chapter 17—Ben Smith himself.

Of course Smith is a character in his own book. After starting as a blogger, he joined Politico, left to run the news division at Buzzfeed News, then hopped over to the New York Times as a media reporter before leaving to co-found Semafor. That intimacy gives him access it would be hard to compete with, but also skews the direction of the book. His presence in the story unsettles much of the writing, particularly regarding authorial voice and thematic focus. 

When you open Traffic, you expect a work of narrative nonfiction, presented with an omniscient, neutral, writerly voice, and you largely get that, until Chapter 17. He doesn’t write in the first person or offer retrospective commentary on the events taking place, and he starts where you’d expect: with Peretti in college, having just gone viral over a prank he pulled on Nike, sparking an obsession that will define his career. But there are small points that break from this. When he writes in Chapter 4 that Andrew Breitbart “gave up on his dreams of true independence and launched a sad little website,” is a “sad little website” the view of Matt Drudge, around whom this chapter is focused, or is this the retrospective opinion on Ben Smith, who hasn’t entered the story yet? 

The reverse happens once he has entered the story and his narrative voice undermines scenes that should have a cold neutrality. In Chapter 30, “Exile,” Denton casts himself as a tragic figure; a fallen technologist with utopian visions whose inventions ultimately bring dystopias he never saw coming. As Smith writes:

“The most generous way to see his internet generation, Nick tweeted after reading Webb’s statement, was that “we were over- optimistic on the timeline to transparency and the utopia that would inevitably result.” Even Nick Denton was disturbed by the forces he’d helped unleash.”

A less “generous” mind would say more about the fact that Denton was one of those “forces,” making millions through vulgar violations of personal privacy, and point out that Gawker belongs to the same part of the internet as 4Chan and LiveLeak. But, because Smith has made his presence known in other sections—through small commentary asides and first-person reporting interjections—his silence on this point reads as ambiguous endorsement.

In the chapters where Smith is a prominent character, his writerly voice becomes clearer and more understandable, and it really pulls you into the workings of the BuzzFeed newsroom. But it also taints chapters that would have been great were they written from a  more neutral viewpoint. Take the chapter about Benny Johnson, whom Smith hired at BuzzFeed, only to fire him for serial plagiarism, and who then went onto stardom as a professional right-wing troll and terminal tweeter. But Smith is better at writing about the people with whom he is less connected than those he knows well. 

Diving into Johnson’s backstory or writing about what made him click could have made for one of the best chapters of the book. Instead, “Benny” is 10 pages of limp apologia, as Smith explains how he missed the red flags, and made the decisions he made, sometimes to absurd effect:

“I thought perhaps Benny could be the David Brooks or George Will of the meme generation, a bridge between BuzzFeed’s reflexive progressivism and the other half of the country, and a check on our own biases.” 

From reading the book, it’s not clear if Smith sees “George Will of the meme generation” for the patent absurdity it is or views it as a perfectly understandable explanation.

In the chapter about Johnson, Smith acknowledges that plagiarism was commonplace in BuzzFeed quizzes and other light content, but that Johnson’s crime was bringing this into “news content.” But what else would you expect in a business built around getting the most clicks possible? Johnson seems to be exactly the kind of “journalist” that BuzzFeed was destined to mint. Anything better than this was despite its incentives.

Smith doesn’t grapple with that. The Johnson episode was an error of judgment in his staffing decision, that’s all. His significance is in showing how hateful right-wing content also thrived with the traffic business model. Smith never considers whether he himself was part of the problem.

And so we get Chapter 29, “The Dossier.” Here Smith writes about his decision to publish the scandalous, unverified, and false Steele Dossier that alleged cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russia. There’s nothing particularly new or exciting of substance here, but the whole chapter is extremely revealing of Smith and his judgment. That’s not a compliment.

He doesn’t seriously consider the criticisms levied against him; the closest he gets to self-reflection is that “perhaps I should have thought a little more about WikiLeaks and anticipated that the people might share the document free of any context.”

“Perhaps”?!

Such (convenient) naiveté about the internet seems utterly incongruent with his professional history or extensive Twitter use, and ultimately, he elides his basic editorial responsibilities by blaming the reader:

“Don’t you, the reader, think you’re smart enough to see a document like that, understand that it is influential but unverified, without losing your mind? Would you rather people like me had protected you from seeing it?”

In this same chapter, he notes how two BuzzFeed reporters later discovered that Trump had “a more mundane interest in Russia”: property development plans. Why not wait then? Why not release a reported-out piece on the property plans that simultaneously acknowledges and debunks the unpublished report? Isn’t the role of an editor to decide what information to present, and how to do so in the most clear, honest fashion?

He defends it on the grounds of “Nick’s values that shaped my career.” He’s referring to transparency, and pushing past institutional gatekeepers, but it rings more truthfully if you remember that Nick Denton’s guiding value, over everything, was getting traffic.

“And, of course, I loved the traffic,” Smith writes about the release. “My news operation, always jealously eyeing the clicks that came from silly lists and quizzes, finally had its version of the Dress.” (In case you don’t remember, this was a photo of a blue and black dress that many incorrectly thought was white and gold, and the online debate that followed was unprecedented viral success for BuzzFeed.) When he released the dossier: “For the next hour … my eyes flicked between the big screen, where I watched the Dossier go viral, and my phone, where I watched it dominate Twitter.” 

Smith’s dominance in the second half drives the book away from the broader topic to something more narrowly focused on BuzzFeed, but without embracing the retrospection that would make it worthwhile.

Smith throws stones at Facebook and the populist right, but doesn’t express any doubts that such an environment may not be conducive to good reporting. He never asks whether what BuzzFeed did was fundamentally harmful, or whether the model they pursued was inherently corrupt — particularly given that, as a shareholder, he was financially affected by such traffic. 

There’s a great book hidden inside Traffic, but it’s too slight, too quick, too personal. It sits at the uncomfortable middle ground between memoir and narrative nonfiction, when it needed to commit to just one.

Alternatively, it could have told a broader story, about how the news media changed in the online era, with later chapters on the reader-funded, newsletter-first publications that have sprung up in the past few years, including The Free Press, The Dispatch, Air Mail, Persuasion, and Puck. The book could have explored whether the click-driven era was a necessary teething period for the online press, or 20 years spent going the wrong direction. But Smith never asks such questions, let alone tries to answer them.

Ross Anderson writes about culture and politics for a number of publications. He tweets from @thatrosschap