In my last three blog posts, I’ve looked at BuzzFeed and social publishing from a few angles, considering identity formation, human and machine learning and labor, and the concepts of “filtering” and “curation” as they relate to the current social publishing moment. As I wrap up this blog series, I want to turn my attention to a word that links these angles and permeates much discussion of social publishing: community.
A quick perusal of a few social publishing sites reveals the prevalence of the concept of “community” in the branding, language, and user experience of these sites. Medium frames itself as a connector and convener; the “about” section of the platform asserts, “Medium connects people, stories, and ideas that matter to you.” Gawker explains its Kinja system to users with enthusiastic instructions, saying, “You can be part of the conversation, express your opinions on the story, and share new insights. However, remember to keep everything civil!” BuzzFeed’s “community” platform complements the work produced by paid BuzzFeed staffers in the site’s constant swirl of content. Looking at all this language, we can see elements that lie at the heart of typical definitions of “community:” shared culture, social norms and governance structures, a sense of association and connection. Of course, unlike many communities, the communities formed within and around social publishing outlets aren’t rooted in a particular locality in physical space. And as the “social web” model of publishing and sharing continues to expand, these communities increasingly aren’t rooted in any particular locality in online space, either. Look at BuzzFeed, for example: its “product” is not so much its role as a node in a network, but the way it facilitates and operates as flow within a network.
This distinction makes the current moment in social publishing -- and, as I’ve expressed in this blog series, poster child BuzzFeed in particular -- especially interesting. Within the topographies of networked online space, a “community” like BuzzFeed’s is embedded into flows and movements rather than coming into contact with these movements at distinct points. BuzzFeed, built in a Web 2.0 environment, operates on internet assumptions and notions of identity, cognition, curation, and, yes, community that are flexible, relational, constantly shifting, and distributed across networks. Within this context, users can engage with BuzzFeed content without ever choosing to visit the site’s homepage (analogous to the “town square” in a locality-based community), as BuzzFeed items float across newsfeeds and are shared by users as part of the ongoing processes of identity formation and relationship building that permeate and sustain the social web.
BuzzFeed’s ability to “optimize” all elements of its platform for this kind of travel is powered by the roles of community members and their networks. As Judith Donath writes in The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online, “in terms of information flow, people are filters, modifiers, amplifiers, and sources. We do not share all the information we have with everyone we know, and when we do, we change it from the form in which we received it….Sometimes we amplify it, adding remarks or credibility that will make it more likely that others too will pass it on...Moving through the network transforms information.” BuzzFeed has been able to embed a flexible understanding of “what BuzzFeed content is” into this ongoing process of flow and transformation, so that each share -- including those that come with added remarks on Facebook, the framing of a “fail” or “LOL” designation, and so on -- transforms, amplifies, and adds credibility to a post in a way that feeds back into BuzzFeed’s own credibility and positioning, rather than moving beyond its “turf.” Indeed, BuzzFeed’s credibility is largely based on this rapid, transitory engagement, rather than on the specific content that appears within the boundaries of the BuzzFeed website itself. This flexible platform encompasses the hallmarks of communities (shared culture, participation and dialogue, social norms and regulations, and so on), but simultaneously distributes this community across the social web and consolidates “ownership” of it.
Of course, communities -- whether they’re online, offline, or some mixture of the two -- require labor to sustain them, and social publishing has much to grapple with here. The networked, distributed nature of the communities that BuzzFeed and others are shaping means that their labor can be hard to see, as it is spread across vast networks, happens in ways that are often left unarticulated or obscured, and is performed by humans and machines in tandem. As social publishing platforms have developed, questions over labor within their communities have emerged: Medium, for example, faced dissatisfaction from paid writers when the platform was opened to (unpaid) users for publishing their own work, which wouldn’t be vetted for quality in the traditional sense. On the other side of things, Thought Catalog tells aspiring employees, “Many of our staff were active on the site either as a community contributor or in the comments section. So the best way to get our attention is to submit your stories and ideas,” suggesting that voluntary labor -- establishing one’s place in the “community” -- might be a prerequisite to paid work within this community.
Even for those who are paid employees of these sites, labor in networked communities raises questions and blurs lines. BuzzFeed staffer Summer Anne Burton, for example, in 2014 discussed her first job at BuzzFeed, which involved a “mix of creating new content—aggregation of any videos or pictures that were ‘going viral’ on the web that day, original lists and writing, as well as the occasional breaking news item—along with managing the front page and sorting through community contributions to surface interesting things our users made.” Explaining the difficulty of balancing social media monitoring with content creation, she continued, “At BuzzFeed the whole point is knowing what gets shared and why, so it’s especially hard to figure out how to tune the dials of social interactions versus ‘real’ work.”
When, as with BuzzFeed, a product and the community around it encompass not a static node in a network, but a flow, this question of “real” work transcends the “producer versus participant” framing that has marked much of the dialogue on social publishing to date. When the labor that sends content throughout the social web is just as much a part of the platform as the labor that produces the content, and the platform’s feedback loops interweave sharing and production, how does one define “production” and “participation”? Are these terms useful? Perhaps, but I also think it’s helpful to broaden the lens when we think about the work of social publishing, including the role that affective labor -- “the constitution of communities and collective subjectivities,” as articulated by Michael Hardt -- plays in an identity-centric, community-driven model. From Jennifer Pan’s analysis of the labor of social media and Whitney Erin Boesel’s take on “your feels as free labor” to the sentiment, echoed by more than one BuzzFeed staffer, that “even my relationships are BuzzFeedified,” there is a diverse web of dialogue and material that can be brought into conversation in thinking about social publishing and its broader implications for work and life in networked communities.
As we think about these implications, we shouldn’t write off the concept of “community” as branding jargon, or discount the significance of items like “Can We Guess Your Age Based on Your Pop Culture Tastes?” or “21 Weird Side Effects of Being A Person of Color Raised by White People.” The questions surrounding social publishing platforms extend beyond production and consumption: in today’s context, how we work and consume are more intertwined than ever with how we socialize, how we share, how we build identities, how we think, and how we feel. In its positioning as a distributed community, part of the flow of the social web, BuzzFeed forms a key element of a much broader conversation: a conversation that’s just getting started across the spaces of networked life.