Someone should really tell Andrew Sullivan that schadenfreude is a hell of a drug. One day you’re huffing it hard, giggling like a demented schoolgirl at someone’s expense. The next someone else is getting high on your own misbegotten supply. Karma—or what’s properly known as God’s want of a hearty laugh—bites back.
The recent shuttering of Buzzfeed News and Vice is a blow for both the once-budding digital media industry and desk-bound millennials forced to stare at a monitor all day. The world is so much the worse now that it’ll be deprived of such stirring exposés as “Taking a Long, Deep Sniff of Fart Porn” and “Quiz: Are You A Grilled Cheese Sandwich?” (I’m a Comté on rye, add bacon, FYI.)
The dual closure should have drawn thunderous hosannas from a journophobe such as myself. Lord forgive me, the temptation was there. Especially with those fiendish pocket supercomputers that prey on our worst instincts, just begging my thumbs to ignore my brain and deploy a snarky tweetstorm. But as I’ve gotten older, and my hairline has beat a retreat like Kutuzov’s army, I find myself more in agreement with Abraham Hershel, who said, “[w]hen I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I’m old, I admire kind people.”
Good advice, especially for an old kulturkampf pot-stirrer like yours truly. Not so for Andrew Sullivan, for whom old grudges die hard. In his Weekly Dish newsletter, he excoriates Ben Smith, founder of Buzzfeed News, for helping turn online media into a vile, attention-sucking landfill, all in service to the almighty click. (And that was just for his site’s publication of the hilariously lurid and debunked Trump Dossier.) Smith wrote a book about his experience cannibalizing our collective mindshare before abandoning ship for a load of Chinese cheese.
Sullivan, who once dressed down Smith in Buzzfeed HQ in front of Smith’s own “content” gerbils, still blames sites like Buzzfeed for cleaving advertising to journalism and letting the insatiable hunger for revenue overwhelm ethical editorialization. “So we get a book entirely about the money-grubbing, nothing-matters, viral assholes who violated every ethic in the business, and, in the end, failed,” he synopsizes, with all sincerity.
When it comes to longevity, Sullivan is right. He’s still standing, kept (back) alive through the increasingly popular subscription-only Substack model. Buzzfeed, and its more prurient cousin, Vice, have gone to the internet afterlife, a kind of purgatory maintained by recurrent hosting fees. MTV News, which hasn’t broken a story since Kurt Cobain’s suicide, just followed the path of all of grunge’s best frontmen. Parler, which once touted itself as the conservative Twitter alternative, recently shuttered.
What’s the throughline in all these media failures? Sensationalism, gimmickry, and the fast dollar prioritized over grounding a strong foundation. Buzzfeed and Vice attempted real journalism occasionally—Vice alone deserved a Pulitzer for capturing on audio a snippet of the only Wu-Tang Clan album in the world in an interview with defamed pharma-shyster Martin Shkreli. But mostly they published smut, millennial jokes, baroque-identity-OWNES-bourgeois bilge, all shoddily formatted to game SEO standards.
The viral-ad-diction model made sense (and even more cents) when Facebook awarded pride of place to publishers on its feed. Then Donald Trump stuck a knife deep in that lucrative dynamic by winning the presidency—a big Washington no-no. The respectable political elite needed to ritually sacrifice a scapegoat and Mark Zuckerberg was easier to blame than the schoolmarmish bag lady who didn’t even bother campaigning in Wisconsin. That’s when Zuckerberg, whose seemingly impregnable, autism-powered social indifference was breached, ended the pay-day party. Joe Nocera writes: “As Facebook decided it had less need for its content partners, more traffic no longer generated more money. The quest for traffic turned out to be a mug’s game.”
The viral boom-and-bust cycle followed a familiar pattern: a handful of early adopters struck gold while tens of thousands of doggerel-dumping imitators were left behind in the wake. A typical business wave break, in other words. American capitalism isn’t embodied in decades-old, big-box conglomerates, or those aging banking behemoths on Wall Street, but in the quick cash grab, the milking of an ephemeral scheme.
The market’s aleatory fortunes inspire all varieties of innovation. But their enriching effects are only sustainable in a culture with stable institutions. Hence why the United States’s equality under the law (insert cynical guffaw here) has been conducive to market liberalism.
The contrast between quick-hit profiteering and immutable tradition was clear when, 24 hours after Ben Smith’s brainchild went belly up, Charles Philip Arthur George was crowned King of England. Royal Family voyeurs and obsessives, and those of us fighting hangovers while trying to get their toddlers back to sleep, enjoyed the regal spectacle not seen since Dwight Eisenhower occupied the Oval. The British monarchy remains Europe’s (possibly) oldest kingly rite. The ceremony doesn’t just contain Christian blessings, but ornamentation inspired by paganist, Celtic, and Germanic traditions. By a stroke of happenstance, Charles’s coronation was also the day of my sixth wedding anniversary. Marriage, despite its legal, if not metaphysical, expansion over the past half-century, remains a primordial institution in nearly every society. The covenantal bond doesn’t just form the family unit, but provides a backstop against risky entrepreneurism that powers capitalism. Rusty Reno notes that the “deepest paradox of liberalism rests in the fact that it requires illiberalism in order to thrive.” If you sink all your life savings into a bogus business venture like flipping Trump NFTs and go bust, it helps if you have your father-in-law’s money to fall back on.
The internet’s fast-moving, even-faster-profit-ringing nature guarantees more Buzzfeeds and Vices will sprout up, vying for our attention, baiting our worst instincts. But the Kirkian permanent things live on.
God save the King! God bless my marriage. And good riddance to mind-numbing listicles. *Opens YouTube app on phone to watch Principal Skinner serve “steamed hams” for the thousandth time.* Ha! Everyone is wasting time on the internet but me!
This piece is excellent in so many ways, from the joyful crafting of delicious prose, to the solidity and profundity of its arguments. Glad you write from Virginia instead of some satanic-infested backwater like…Maryland. 🙂 Absit invidia, Maryland. We kid because we love.