They give it away


work capitalism media buzzfeed

I think the time I spent on the Community team was interesting. Firstly it was the closest knit team I’ve ever been on, socially speaking. Partly there was a good social chemistry between team members and a sense that we had a fun part of the product to work on and we knew about it more than anybody else in the organisation. The pandemic baked in those personal relationships strongly, to the point that we became a sort of insufferable clique.

The product problem was interesting because it was one of the few places working at a publisher where you can actually get to know your users, where they actually have a specific understanding and engagement with BuzzFeed versus somewhere else. The downside was the fear we always had about the community content model being immoral.

These teens (and they were mostly teens) were using the tools we give them to make quizzes and lists for a few different reasons. Some of them were to share amongst their friends at school. Some of them were really interested in a particular fandom and the tools let them create and share fandom content with likeminded people in the community. Others, and this was the group I worried about, saw a byline hosted at as a foot in the door that would break them into the world of being a BuzzFeed writer, or a writer generally.

The insidious part of all of it is that they are spending sometimes incredible quantities of time creating content for free, and we were serving ads next to it and making money off of it. Our team’s goals were to increase engagement in that core group, to reward them with points and trophies, and to grow the group. We were directly incentivising that behaviour with performance metrics like boosting the number of community posts written and so on. Meanwhile, we still employ full-time writers who create quizzes and lists and so on for a salary (and not a very good one), while a sub-group of the tech team is working to undercut their labour with free labour from volunteers. You can frame it how you like, and a lot of these users really loved the stuff we were giving them, but that’s the economic reality.