A few creepy extracts from Jill Abramson’s Merchants of Truth about the office culture at BuzzFeed. The pursuit of virality has been gamified, with these ostentatiously fun undertakings matched by an underlying threat that those who can’t reach these standards won’t survive at the company in the longer term. In light of this we should be sceptical of attempts to make it fun but that shouldn’t entail a rejection that fun is possible.
What are the pleasures found in virality? The energies involved in making something ‘a thing’ as BuzzFeed staff are reportedly prone to saying (pg 144)? What are their managers channeling in these exercises? How does it feed what Richard Seymour calls the Twittering Machine?
From pg 38:
Every so often, Peretti would announce an office-wide “sprint,” for which the staff would divide into two teams and race to publish as many posts as possible on a single topic—funny babies, say, or conspiracy theories. Each time a new post went up, the author banged a gong. It was one of the many madcap methods Peretti came up with to spur his staff to be maximally productive. On Fridays he would organize “game battles,” another competitive post-writing contrivance, all the wilder for the fact that it involved a steady intake of alcohol throughout the day.
From pg 116:
Management insisted on quantifying the popularity of its employees’ work using Nguyen’s dashboard. Every afternoon they sent out a company-wide “scorecard” and awarded virtual badges to the day’s winners. A running tally ranked the top-performing post-writers in terms of the eyeballs they won. Notching 10 posts with at least a million views each qualified you for induction into the Players’ Club, a distinction commemorated by a dinky plastic trophy and a handwritten letter of congratulations from Beastmaster Shepherd, in crayon. A few ascended to the Silver and Gold Players Clubs. Upon authoring his 100th million-view post, Matt Stopera was admitted to the Crystal Players Club. The only one on a higher rung was his younger brother, Dave, sole member of the Platinum Players Club.
The quest for ever-bigger blockbusters kept BuzzFeeders glued to their computer screens. Someone would publish a post that went mega-vi and receive invitations to appear on a television talk show, but the staff joked that it was only worth doing so their parents could watch them on air. The pace of BuzzFeed’s growth meant employees faced consequences if they weren’t meeting traffic goals. One former staff writer, Arabelle Sicardi, whose essays on womanhood and self-image packed more substance than most content on the site, was reassigned when her numbers lulled. “They had me stop writing essays and only concentrate on viral,” she said. Posts like “This Piglet Dressed as a Unicorn Is Making Everyone Cry Rainbows” and “13 Emotions Everyone Experiences in Sephora” then took the place of her expositions on feminism. “That’s when I decided to leave.”
There was a comparable system in place with Facebook’s (now ended) human verification of trending stories. From pg 291 of the same book:
Of the roughly 200 stories editors vetted each day, the number they greenlighted was usually around 15 to 20, maybe 30 if they spent their entire shift in hyperdrive. The goal handed down from upstairs, editors said, was for them all to reach a daily rate of 50 verified stories. The number they produced each day was prominently visible to everyone who worked in the office and was frequently cause for conversation with the bosses. The editors who verified and produced the lowest number of news stories in a given month got last pick when it came time to sign up for the next month’s shift slots, meaning they got stuck with overnights on their weekends and the 4 p.m. to midnight shift during the week. Top performers were given “points” that could be spent on Facebook paraphernalia like T-shirts.