BuzzFeed and the Internet’s suburbs

In Washington, D.C., the best ethnic food, by far, is found in the surrounding suburbs. If you're inside the Beltway, there's good Ethiopian, and beyond that, a few standouts (Great Wall Szechuan House for Chinese, Little Serow for Thai, Himalayan Heritage for Nepalese, Kotobuki for sushi), but there's really nothing compared to the bounty you can find in Northern Virginia and Maryland.

Hiptster Ariel, another great meme brought to you by the Internet, and by BuzzFeed.

The problem is the suburbs are hard to get to. If you own a car, you can drive, but you're probably going to get stuck in traffic for the better part of an hour. Public transit tends not to reach these places easily. It's much too far to walk. And once you do get there, where do you go? There are lots of Chinese places in Falls Church, after all. And even if you find the good ones, what do you order? How do you get the right menu?  How do you persuade the waitress that you really do want the spicy thing made out of pig's knuckles? And, in particular, how do you do any of this if you don't know about Tyler Cowen's Ethnic Dining Guide? It's a lot of time and effort  to spend three minutes of bliss with a banh mi.

There's an economic loss here: The suburbs have food that people in D.C. would like to eat, and people in D.C. have money they would like to give to the people making food in the suburbs, but it's hard for the seller and the customers to hook up. I've long fantasized about starting a market called "Suburbs," where we'd buy food from the suburbs in the morning and sell it at a mark-up to hungry Beltway denizens at lunch. Some of the food trucks — the Fojol Bros., for instance — are doing exactly that.

I mention all this because it seems to me to be the best way of understanding what the viral geniuses at BuzzFeed are doing. Slate's Farhad Manjoo has been reverse-engineering their posts, and what he's found is that much of BuzzFeed's most popular content is coming from elsewhere on the Internet:

Once you understand how central Reddit is to BuzzFeed, it’s like spotting the wizard behind the curtain. Whenever you see a popular BuzzFeed post, search Reddit, and all will be revealed. A post called “30 Very Sound Pieces of Advice,” full of photos showing amusing life lessons? You’ll find many of its pictures by searching Reddit for “advice,” “sound advice,” “best advice,” and other such phrases. (You can complete your search by looking at Google Images and IMGur, too.) How about “19 Things That Will Drive Your OCD Self Insane”? Search for phrases involving “OCD.” “Fourteen of the Most Fabulous Animals in the Kingdom” — amazing pictures of animals striking glam poses? Just search the Web for “Bitch, I’m Fabulous,” a well-known Web meme, with particular animals (i.e., here’s a fabulous pigeon, a fabulous gorilla and a fabulous llama). Thirty-three Animals Who Are Extremely Disappointed in You”? That mines an old meme, one that’s easy to find all over the Web — including in a BuzzFeed post from last year, “12 Extremely Disappointed Animals.

BuzzFeed's founder, Jonah Peretti, doesn't really deny it:

Peretti added that even though Shepherd’s post wasn’t the first to document “faith in humanity” pictures, it was unquestionably the best. “In this case we’re popularizers of something that was more widely known in the world of Reddit or 4Chan,” Peretti says. NedHardy’s post includes several blurry images and a few that aren’t easy to figure out. Shepherd removed all those. His list has better, bigger pictures, and he added explanatory captions. “We’re making it into something that will delight and be understandable to the Facebook audience,” Peretti says. “It was almost more what we didn’t include that was the key to that post — we didn’t include inside jokes and memes that most people don’t understand. We took it down to its emotional core and made it more relatable to a general audience. That’s a service we provide, and we’re adding value by doing that.”

In other words, BuzzFeed is going to the suburbs for you. There are places on the Internet — like Reddit and 4Chan — where lots of fun or touching or heartwarming or interesting content is being produced that many people would like. But these places can be hard to find, difficult to navigate, and intimidating to newcomers. They're full of inside jokes and threads that don't have mass appeal, and they tend to reward users who have the time to work through a lot of content. BuzzFeed is doing that work on behalf of the users.

The question that's left unanswered in Manjoo's piece is whether BuzzFeed is doing enough to credit and send traffic back to the originators of the content they're culling:

Peretti had no good answer for this. “In cases where it relates to anonymous Internet culture, we don’t have a clear policy” about when to cite your sources, Peretti says. “It’s a moving target — we think a lot about it and try to understand what’s the right way to handle this stuff.”

At the moment, many of BuzzFeed’s editors seem to have their own sourcing policies. Some of them cite Reddit sometimes; others never do. Some of them tell you where they found their images; others almost never do. (Peretti did say that BuzzFeed has a policy not to link to 4Chan because it doesn’t want to steer unsuspecting readers to the graphic horrors found on that freewheeling site.)

I should note that BuzzFeed’s reliance on Reddit doesn’t bother Reddit. Erik Martin, that site’s general manager, told me he doesn’t think BuzzFeed is doing anything wrong. Ordinary Redditors aren’t bothered either. Indeed, they’ll often link to BuzzFeed posts that were inspired by Reddit memes — and those posts are often brimming with appreciative comments.

This doesn't seem sufficient to me, but if the folks at Reddit are happy, it's not for me to decide whether they're getting a raw deal. The broader point is that BuzzFeed is providing real value here. The Internet is awesome, but it's also huge, and there's a real role for people able to bring the best of it to your doorstep. Just like there's a real role for someone to make it easier for those of us working in downtown D.C. to get banh mi at lunch.

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Sarah Kliff · June 27, 2012