Book Review: Traffic: Genius, Rivalry and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral, Ben Smith, Penguin Press, N.Y., 2023.

Technology Policy Brief #92 | By: Mindy Spatt | July 11, 2023
Photo taken from: theintercept.com

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A history of the early 2000’s Internet media wars by a former Editor of Buzzfeed News.  Ben Smith describes how the founders of upstart news sites like Gawker and the Huffington Post started off racing to post breaking, under-reported news and ended up in a race for online traffic.  And how Breitbart News and Steve Bannon were ultimately the ones who won that race. 

Review

If you’re a news freak like I am, you might enjoy this romp through some of the tawdriest news stories of the first 20 years of this century, including Anthony Weiner’s penis pics and Trumps’ pee tape.  Ben Smith is the ideal person to guide us, since as he experienced the boom and the bust from two perspectives, working at Buzzfeed News in its heyday and joining the NY Times as media correspondent after that.   

The story goes something like this:  privileged young white guys want to shake up the media landscape via the Internet, but get caught up in an urgent competition for traffic on the information superhighway.  Smith attempts to put a human face on the story by centering it around himself, Jonah Peretti of Buzzfeed and Nick Denton of Gawker as they move through a series of offices in the hippest parts of Brooklyn and lower Manhattan and lunch with potential financiers at Balthazar.  As characters Peretti and Denton aren’t particularly likeable or interesting, and there’s no surprise in their pursuit of engagement becoming the pursuit of profit. 

Peretti was an editor at Huffington Post, working alongside Andrew Breitbart, an even less likeable character who Stein repeatedly describes as “pudgy“, “overweight” and a “flea bag.” But there’s no surprise as Breitbart ended up heading a right-wing media empire either; he knew Ariana Huffington from her days as a republican spokeswoman and had worked for the Drudge Report, whose right-wing views Huffington launched her site to counteract.  Since neither reader nor author like him, the lengthy descriptions of Brietbart’s  “humiliations” at the hands of Matt Drudge, and how they might have made him feel, add nothing to the book. 

The subtitle notwithstanding, I wasn’t particularly impressed with the genius of the three either, as they watch traffic carefully in order to devise new ways to attract it.  For example, he describes the exhilarating moment when Buzzfeed editors realized how they could monetize 10 best lists or quizzes, i.e., “What’s your love style,” the type of content that, as Stein notes, was already a mainstay of women’s magazines.  After posting a quiz entitled “What State Do You belong in” that readers had strong reactions to on Facebook, “…we gathered astounded as [T]raffic …built to around 200,000 people…about twice as many as most days.”  Now Buzzfeed knew how to use Facebook to its own advantage. 

Gawker, with its often-salacious coverage of media celebrities, comes off as little more than tabloid journalism for the Internet age.   According to Stein “Nick had always produced traffic flow by giving people the things they wouldn’t admit they wanted, and by publishing the things that nobody else would.  The purest form of this was the sex tape….”  It’s ironic that one of Denton’s earliest successes was outing financier Peter Thiel as gay, since Denton is gay himself.  Theil returned the favor years later by backing Hulk Hogan’s sex tape lawsuit that forced Gawker into bankruptcy.

While Stein speaks admiringly of a few women who rose to the top of this field, he doesn’t ponder whether the sites might have had more staying power or more substance had they included more content by and about people of color or women, or had more diverse leadership and staffing.  However, he does note the great success of Gawker’s sister site for women, Jezebel, which “had a community, a real one.” 

In the final chapters of Stein’s book we see Steve Bannon succeed Andrew Brietbart after his death and, with Bannon’s help, candidate Donald Trump decisively wins the traffic wars.  “He’s made for Facebook” Stein says.  And anyone can get in on the act.  Stein describes how “a handful of teenagers in Veles, Macedonia,” hoping to make a few bucks, created anti-Hillary websites with articles like “Your Prayers Have Been Answered” (Hillary will be indicted) that drove Americans to their sites.  Genius?  

Stein doesn’t have much to say about why things worked out so badly, or how lies and misinformation became so easy to spread, nor does he appear to question the capitalist underpinnings of the traffic race.  His conclusion focuses on a few individuals who went over to the dark side rather than any broader societal implications or doubts about his own role. 

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