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Is Buzzfeed making the Internet worse?

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In an interesting article today on Tech Crunch, Alexis Tsotsis describes the Fourth Internet as “Get Mine.” What she means is that the other three Internets, “Getting Information Online,” “Getting the Information Organized,” and, “Getting Everyone Connected,” were distinctly different from where we are today. That makes sense so far. By “Get Mine,” she means that the new way people access the Internet is far more mobile, more social, and, she regrets, has more power concentrated in fewer hands (and therefore far more capricious than ever before).

She cites as her example enormously popular sites like Buzzfeed that allow their users to socially share and by doing so, identify with Buzzfeed’s very intentionally written content. I’m not sure I agree with her profoundly negative assessment:

The fourth Internet is scary like Darwinism, brutal enough to remind me of high school. It’s a game of identity where you either make people feel like members of some exclusive club, likeThe Information does with a pricy subscription model or all niche tech sites do with their relatively high CPM, or you straight up play up to reader narcissism like Buzzfeed does, slicing and dicing user identity until you end up with “21 Problems Only People With Baby Faces Will Understand.”

That Tsotsis compares the Fourth Internet to high school is interesting. High school was brutal but mostly because it was an awkward stage where immaturity met fledgling power in the crucible of teenage angst. We all had to go through it to get where we are today because home school would have left us socially awkward and perfect correctness would have left us unready for the harsh world we actually live in as adults.

High school revisited?

I’m not convinced that the Buzzfeed business model is high school revisited. The Internet is certainly a place where a remarkable amount of norming is happening right now, some of it painful, which bears some resemblance to our secondary education. But I think the parallels stop there. What Buzzfeed has done is to give the masses a way to identify and filter information that would otherwise be overwhelming and, more importantly, would be completely in the hands of the gatekeepers of yesteryear. The masses are a viral bunch and Buzzfeed gets that, but there’s more…virality isn’t necessary about numbers. It is also about stickiness for those who are reached. This is a great explanation of what this means:

Viral today is BuzzFeed’s current post, “17 Bizarre Foods Every Russian Grew Up With (Besides borscht)”, which editor-in-chief Ben Smith says “will totally hit everybody it could possibly reach through Facebook” — anyone who grew up in Russia, knows someone who did, or is simply curious. “Chris Geidner did a story about advances in the treatment of transgender people under law. Maybe 10,000 [people] cared about that — but it was a big scoop that maybe all 10,000 heard about. To me, that’s a huge success. It’s not just numbers, it’s being part of the conversation.

This is where things will go in the Fourth Internet. Is it brutal or darwinian like high school? No. Is it a transformative stage for both the Web and its netizens? Yes. What the Internet has shown us repeatedly is that the Internet is in constant evolution, with each disruptive model replacing the previous one. Is that threatening to the old guard (who might have only appeared a decade ago)? Certainly. It’s funny and exhilarating how yesterday’s disruptor is today’s disrupted.

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