In a four-part blog series, I’ll be exploring BuzzFeed and the social publishing moment it inhabits, looking at publishing platforms built specifically for the social web and considering the networks that surround them. The series will investigate elements like machine learning, algorithmic culture, labor, community, and more – how are they shaping, and being shaped by, social publishing platforms and their implications?
“Which ‘00s Teen Movie Are You?” “16 Stuffed Cookies That Will Make You Swoon.” “ISIS Mounts New Propaganda Campaign Against ‘Sexual Deviancy’.” These headlines, familiar in format but hugely diverse in content, might show up on your Facebook newsfeed or in a friend’s Twitter retweet, or maybe you’ll encounter them on the site they all call home: BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed, “the social news and entertainment company,” is one of the most successful of the social publishing platforms currently blurring the lines between open platforms and online publishers. BuzzFeed’s rise has been fast and the company’s multi-directional approach has surprised many – on the site, a cat video might appear next to a deeply reported dispatch from a conflict zone or even a cameo by President Obama– but BuzzFeed’s biggest asset and core trait is well established: it’s really, really good at producing content that people want to click on, share, and rapidly send throughout the social web.
BuzzFeed’s approach is closely tied to identity. This word is central to BuzzFeed’s corporate narrative: BuzzFeed leaders frequently point to users’ desire to identify with content in discussion of the platform’s success, and the company closely tracks and cross-tabulates user engagement with its content. In fact, the simple tag “identity” accompanies many posts on BuzzFeed, with the posts collected by this tag ranging from “10 Moments Black People In The Workplace Know Too Well” to “19 Signs You’re A Chocoholic.” Staff call this “identity-based content;” in a 2013 webinar on BuzzFeed Video’s strategy, for example, “virologist” Ze Frank discussed identity-based content in breaking down types of video people like to share. This works for advertisements, too: in explaining how BuzzFeed’s business model, based on seamlessly integrating native advertising into its platform, works, Chief Creative Office Jeff Greenspan has commented, “Nobody wants to be a shill for your brand. But they are happy to share information and content that helps them promote their own identity.”
The concept of capitalist enterprise built on consumers’ identity production has deep roots in theory – and BuzzFeed’s founder knows this. After a 2013 profile of the founder, Jonah Peretti, referenced an academic paper Peretti had published soon after graduating from college, a bit of online buzz grew around various analyses of the paper that appeared online, which pointed out how the article seemed to be laying out the strategy Peretti would later develop at BuzzFeed. In the paper, Peretti puts the work of Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus into conversation with Fredric Jameson’s “Postmodernism and Consumer Society," considering subjectivity and "the flow between schizophrenic and identifacatory impulses.” Perreti’s central argument is below:
While it may not be fair to attach too much meaning to an undergraduate paper written years ago – Peretti’s response to the online analysis of his unearthed contribution to scholarship can be summed up as “lol” – it’s interesting to bring the general ideas expressed in the paper into conversation with BuzzFeed and, more broadly, with elements of the new media theory and social web development that have helped form the context in which BuzzFeed was designed. Certainly, BuzzFeed’s user experience resembles the postmodern high culture/low culture blurring and “scrambled” sense Jameson associates with late capitalism, with reports from Syria and longform essays appearing next to quizzes on 1990s sitcoms. Within this vast mix of content, BuzzFeed allows for an understanding of “identity” not just on ontological terms, but also in terms of behaviors and affinities that include everything from shared memories of college to an affiliation with a certain “Mean Girls” character. BuzzFeed’s ability to rapidly produce content that prompts users to associate themselves with all kinds of identities, and then instantly perform the work of helping this content travel throughout the web, exemplifies a “flexible, rapid, and profitable mechanism of identify formation.”
In the context of the social web, BuzzFeed's success (from a profit standpoint) has largely hinged on its ability to "natively" interweave advertising with identity as produced and performed in networked spaces. What the context of the social web adds to a reading of BuzzFeed is the workings of these identity performances: online, identity production and performance are highly networked and relational, which can be seen in BuzzFeed’s focus not just on clicks but on sharing. As researchers like danah boyd have shown (boyd’s work on Friendster profiles and subsequent research provide relevant examples), users’ profiles and the content they share within social networks do not constitute static self-representations, but rather are communicative and act in conversation with others’ self-representations. In online spaces explicitly geared toward networked interaction, this engagement with others’ self-representations is key to positioning one’s own performance of identity. This plays out in various ways; in a recent example, BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief discussed BuzzFeed’s push to grow its Hispanic audience by producing more Hispanic-centric content and observed that even content meant to speak to a particular identity, like “19 Things Your Mexican Mom Hated Hearing From You,” drew audiences beyond the intended target audiences, “because most of our readers have diverse groups of friends and followers on the social web.”
These practices recall N. Katherine Hayles’ description, in How We Became Posthuman, of the posthuman subject as “an amalgam, a collection of heterogeneous components, a material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction.” As BuzzFeed produces “identity content” explicitly designed to be shared on the social web, users rapidly generate and shed components of self-representations, constructing and deconstructing boundaries in relation to the network around them. Being single, being Australian, being a scrapbooker – any number of disparate components can form the ever-shifting composites that characterize networked identity performances. BuzzFeed, with its boundary-blurring approach to social publishing, has positioned itself at the heart of this ongoing process.
 Jonah Peretti, “Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Contemporary Visual Culture and the Acceleration of Identity Formation/Dissolution,” Negations, Winter 1996. "Schizophrenia" references the term's previous use in critical theory.
N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1999), 3.