For three straight days in early August, unintentional gay porn innuendos of Olympic men’s swimming reigned supreme in traffic on Buzzfeed, the breakout curated newsite of viral content.
Buzzfeed’s closest competitors, Reddit and the newly relaunched Digg, each featured dramatically different stories, from the Syrian rebellion to video game history (and, of course, plenty of cats). For 4 days earlier this month, I tracked what netizens would have learned if they visited nothing but the most popular stories of the three websites claiming to be the ultimate source of buzz-worthy Internet content (by taking screenshots of each website simultaneously throughout the week). I found a few interesting differences of note:
-When democracy rules, as in Reddit and Digg, (where all content is ranked by vote), viewers minds’ are filled with international news, heavily biased social commentary (feminist, pro-gay marriage), and geek pride. When Buzzfeed’s editorial eyes cover the Internet, cute animal pics, celebrity gossip, and political horse-race stories rule the front page.
-Reddit prefers to tell major stories from a first-person perspective. For instance, “I was denied free voter ID today” topped Reddit today, while the rest of the media covered controversial voter suppression laws with the traditional journalistic eye.
-The new Digg is like a geek filter for Google News: the most intriguing tech and science stories from established media outlets, from Scientific American to CNN.
BuzzFeed, the self-avowed source of “the hottest, most social content on the web”, employs an army of quick-witted writers who scour the web for whatever content is likely to go viral. As BuzzFeed’s experimental media site evolved, it clearly began to prioritize celebrity buzz, top 10 lists of adorable animals, and the most salacious news from outlets like CNN (think Anthony Weiner pics).
BuzzFeed looks for the most sharable content. The nuanced views of Mitt Romney’s VP pick, Paul Ryan, may dominate front page news, but why share what everyone else is already reading? We’re more likely to alert our friends to some outrageous factoid about Paul Ryan, like his mild obsession with home workout fad, P90X.
BuzzFeed does have a notable dearth of serious news. Despite their extraordinary effort to inject (impressive) original reporting in science, business, and politics, a quick glance at the most popular articles shows that the writers prefer content coming from TMZ over The New York Times.
“I think anybody who’s worked in the news business, at least since I think the second World War, realizes that entertainment is more popular and more widely consumed than politics,” says Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s Editor-in-Chief and a Politico contributor. “I think probably more people were talking about Marilyn Monroe than about Dwight Eisenhower on any given day in the ’50s, too. I think that’s kind of the banal truth.”
The New York Times, however, thinks BuzzFeed’s editorial process is on to something revolutionary in media, and has inked an official partnership in the hopes that it can captures some lifesaving viral buzz.
Reddit, the democratic alter-ego of BuzzFeed, where the front page is a mix of trending and top-voted stories, has always had a geeky culture. A story on the CERN particle accelerator was just as likely to top the site as gay marriage victories or picture of a cat stuck in a kleenex box. Reddit has an uncanny ability to tell the day’s biggest stories through media unique to the web. In the middle of the Chick-Fil-A fiasco, the front page had liberal vs. conservative viewpoints competing through YouTube and a meme photo. The pro-gay marriage Redditors posted a meme photo comparing 1960′s segregationist protestors to those protesting outside of Chick-fil-A. Conservatives, for their part, posted a video of a nasty gay marriage proponent bullying a little kid eating at the establishment (which has since been taken down by Youtube). As a result, Reddit is a fantastic source for the personal perspectives that can get lost in the process of disinterested journalism.
Digg, the once mighty news aggregator, relaunched under new ownership and is as entertaining as it ever was. In the midst of the cybersecurity legislation debate, the top story on Digg was about how porn-surfing employees had compromised the security of a nuclear defense site. In regards to the on-going immigration debate, Digg unearthed a USA Today story about how immigrants know more about US history than Americans. While Digg may never regain its king-of-the-hill status, it’s certainly a good source for geeky news and spin on the hot news of the day.
Fortunately, each site has its own breed of addicting material. Besides, what else are you going to do while at the office…work?