When the New York Times announced late this past weekend that BuzzFeed had raised an additional $50 million in funding from the iconic Silicon Valley investment firm Andreessen Horowitz, media commentators lined up to take jabs at the website (though that label will likely prove quickly irrelevant). More money, for listicles and quizzes? More resources to spawn the kind of pandering, lowbrow content that already fills our Facebook feeds?
The investment took on the spin of a slight at the heritage media companies that aren’t getting the same attention from venture capitalists: long-lived institutions like the New York Times and Harper’s, whose publisher John R. MacArthur publicly shunned not just “viral news” but the entire Internet and any form of technology newer than 3.5-inch floppy disks in a soon-to-be-infamous Times profile. If BuzzFeed was turning out to be the winner of the race to dominate the online media landscape, then the fundamental basis of real journalism was apparently under threat by articles with as many GIFs as words.
But what critics are missing is that BuzzFeed isn’t really taking on journalism. It is now an entertainment, rather than news, company—a fact underlined by new plans like launching a movie development branch and separating its viral content sections from editorial. The business is succeeding because it’s embracing media at the level of the story rather than the scoop. It’s a strategy that monetizes the natural tendencies of the human brain toward narrative.
Stories make us more amenable to sharing things with others, and mirroring others’ behavior makes us share even more.
Stories have an intrinsic value, as Dr. Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, discovered in his 2012 research on narratives and empathy. His team showed test subjects a fictional video of a father describing the challenges of having a son with a fatal brain tumor. After watching the video narrative, half the test subjects chose to donate a portion of their earnings from the experiment to a childhood cancer charity. The scientists found that perceiving the narrative actually releases chemicals in the brain that occasion concrete action. “We have identified oxytocin as the neurochemical responsible for empathy and narrative transportation,” Zak writes. “Oxytocin makes us more sensitive to social cues around us.”
While BuzzFeed isn’t manipulating its readers so blatantly, Zak’s experiment set-up makes an interesting parallel for how less sophisticated viral news websites like Upworthy and Viralnova pull emotional triggers to get readers to share their stories through narratives that drive that release of oxytocin. In this case, it’s the narrative that’s important, rather than its factual utility or journalistic scoops.
There’s an interesting separation to be drawn here between the value of information and the value of a narrative-driven story. Hard news providers like the Associated Press, Reuters, or the New York Times stake their value on being able to communicate new information through the vehicle of a story, while BuzzFeed’s value proposition is that it can craft just the right story to be shared widely by its audience no matter its content, from LOLcats to foreign policy updates. While adding new, useful information can help a story go viral, it’s not always necessary. Memes like quizzes or listicles, after all, tend to confirm what we already know more often than tell us new things about ourselves.
This tendency is an inherent quality of social communication: We share memes because sharing things with others feels good, as Dr. Nikolaus Ritt, a linguist at the University of Vienna, explained in a recent phone conversation. “Simply finding out we conform can reinforce the spread of a meme,” Ritt says. As Zak’s research showed, stories make us more amenable to sharing things with others, and mirroring others’ behavior makes us share even more. This is the value of the story, which BuzzFeed understands implicitly—the company’s founder Jonah Peretti even studied memes at MIT and Eyebeam, a New York City non-profit focused on new media.
BuzzFeed’s inherent manifesto is that all forms of story are equal, as long as they are compelling. That’s why video footage of U.S. planes dropping aid packages in Iraq can co-exist with silly posts about a potato shaped like a shark or even plans to develop fictional feature-length films. It’s all about the narrative.
The company is also beating out its older competitors at packaging and selling that narrative to brands and advertisers. Like newspapers, journalist Felix Salmon writes in a post on Medium, BuzzFeed starts by “building products that people love. But then, instead of inserting advertising into that product, it then sells advertisers its expertise at building such things.” So, rather than using banner ads or sponsorships that place brands next to stories in the hopes that some of the magic will rub off, the business is actually leveraging a much more valuable skill—its ability to create stories.
We are left with the question, however, that if stories are so monetizable, then where does that leave informative journalism? As in traditional media where the advertiser-friendly style and life sections draw revenue that the international news pages don’t, BuzzFeed’s excellent (and expensive) news editorial team will be a loss-leader for the profit generated by the new branches of BuzzTeam and BuzzFeed Life. But the company is going one step further, and running these distinct branches almost as separate companies that find their own niches on the Internet.
BuzzFeed’s various forms of journalism and popular entertainment, whether video or listicle, are essentially advertising for its ability to successfully tell stories, a talent it sells to brands. The journalism is nice to have as a flagship label, of course, but as Salmon points out, the “editorial product is in fact the least valuable part of its business.” The New York Times has no such cushion to fall back on.
If viral stories are about conforming, then good journalism must be about standing out, advocating for the truth that goes against the social, sharable grain. The Times and other heritage media companies could do more to monetize their ability to tell stories, but in the end, it’s their journalism that makes them uniquely important.
Memes aren’t always healthy, Ritt argues, and sometimes we actually have to fight our social tendencies to get at what society actually needs. “If you are interested in what’s good for us, it also makes sense to think about what we might be up against” as far as memes taking over our avenues of communication, he says.
In other words, we still need a way to get our narrative vegetables rather than just our oxytocin-releasing story desserts.