23rd September 2023

A Virtual World of Live Pictures

Technology and Computer

They Did It for the Clicks


1. When you’re stuck for a narrative transition, you reach for banalities like “Meanwhile the traffic climbed” or “Facebook grew and grew.”

2. You love ending sentences with a colon and the word: traffic.

3. You devote an unusual amount of effort, in a book that’s mostly light on character description, to pointing out that right-wing media guru Andrew Breitbart was overweight (or, to use your own words, a “frenetic, overweight fleabag of a man,” a “hyperactive pigpen of a right-wing lunatic, whose belly hung out from underneath his ratty T-shirt”).

4. You never miss an opportunity to remind us that you, Ben Smith, are a devoted father to young children. (“I was reading a fairy tale to my young son when I realized what was happening.”)

5. You love to describe business meetings you were invited to, especially if they involved a fancy lunch or—cool dad alert—getting high afterward.

6. You often gesture melodramatically toward a dark future via the little-did-they-know parenthetical (“It was one of the earliest flares of what would, a decade later, become social media”).

7. You know how to talk like the cool kids. (Barack Obama’s mid-2000s popularity online “was, in its way, the sideboob of politics.”)

8. Often this does not … work out so well. (“Jonah had created the site with his little sister Chelsea, who had moved to New York to make it in stand-up comedy. Cringe!”)

9. You are strangely apolitical, despite politics forming the backdrop to much of your narrative.

10. You have never seen a corporate cliché that didn’t deserve a home in narrative nonfiction. (Denton “backed into politics through Jezebel”; New York Times executive David Perpich “got in on the ground floor” of an early 2000s music startup.)

Traffic is less interesting as a history of digital media—much of the book’s raw material comes from other historical accounts, a debt acknowledged in an endnote on sourcing—than as a record of its author’s evolving thinking on the role of journalism online. Smith left BuzzFeed in 2020 to become the media columnist for The New York Times; last year, he left the Times and launched the media venture Semafor, designed, in Smith’s own words, to cater to the world’s “200 million people who are college educated, who read in English, but who no one is really treating like an audience, but who talk to each other and talk to us.”

Reflecting in Traffic on his own mistakes and flirtations with online notoriety during eight years at the helm of BuzzFeed News—such as the controversial 2017 decision to publish the Steele dossier, which included claims of collusion between the Russian government and Donald Trump, or his decision to hire future plagiarist and far-right media star Benny Johnson—Smith seems eager to demonstrate growth, to advertise his learning. “Perhaps I should have thought a little more” about people sharing the Steele dossier online without BuzzFeed News’ copious disclaimers, he muses at one point. But the limp introspection of these postmortems jars with the excitability of the passages where he recounts BuzzFeed’s explosive growth (“The traffic was back”; “I went to stand in the middle of the newsroom and watch the traffic flow”; “I loved the traffic”), suggesting a basic conflict that the book leaves unresolved.

In the internet age, should journalism aim to expose the truth or attract attention through any means? Smith does not say. A “deep confusion” across BuzzFeed “about what BuzzFeed News was for” represented, in his view, the seed of the news venture’s eventual failure. But a similar confusion appears to infect his own perspective on the media’s basic mission. At times, he appears to endorse the view that journalism is a form of entertainment, that it’s all part of the internet’s great game. At others, he aligns himself with Denton’s version of journalistic “transparency,” which he thinks mostly means “leaks and aggressive reporting.” In the book’s wimpy finale, Smith positions the next stage of his career as a kind of professional apology tour, heroically devoting himself to the task of rebuilding media and making it “resistant to the forces we helped unleash.” But in an increasingly dizzying informational universe, with the pressure to stand out and make a scene only growing, how exactly will trust in the media be rebuilt? Smith’s contention in Traffic that, by the early 2020s, the internet “had become, merely, society itself”—which misses, once again, the critical interactions between technology and society, the power of each to influence and shape the other—leaves little to suggest he has an answer.