Ben Smith on the Bust of the Digital Media Age

The Semafor editor-in-chief discusses his new book “Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral.”

Ben Smith, editor in chief of Semafor and author of the new book, “Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral.” Composite: The Intercept; Photo: Kate Bubacz/Buzzfeed News


Penguin Random House

The media world over the last few week has been rocked by major disruptions: Fox ousts Tucker Carlson, CNN fires Don Lemon, BuzzFeed News is shutting down, Twitter has become a less reliable resource, and Vice Media shutters its flagship program “Vice News Tonight.” Over the last two decades, the media landscape has transformed with the advent of social media, and signs of another evolution are surfacing. This week on Deconstructed, Ryan Grim is joined by Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of Semafor, to talk about his new book “Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral.” They discuss the role social media played in transforming media and politics over the last 15 years, and how one of the most viral moments in history alarmed Facebook.

[Deconstructed intro theme music.]

Ryan Grim: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Ryan Grim. We’re joined today by Ben Smith, who is the author of the new book “Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral.” He’s also the founder of the new outlet, Semafor.

Ben, welcome to Deconstructed. 

Ben Smith: Thank you for having me, Ryan. 

RG: This was an exciting book for me to read. I can’t tell if I can recommend it to other people because it’s kind of so personal to me. It’s like a journey through much of my own career. But I also think that anybody who wants to understand the transformation of our politics over the last 15 years really does have to understand the way that the media has been transformed, and the role that social media has played in that. So, I really do recommend this to people. 

BS: Whew. I thought you were going to say that you couldn’t recommend it, and I was like, what am I doing on this podcast?

RG: I do. I think people — And it’s a fun read, too. It’s kind of a romp through this nightmare hellscape.

BS: Yes! Oh, man, I should have gotten you to blurb it. That’s amazing.

RG: Oh, there you go. “A romp through a nightmare hellscape.”

So, you’re quite the entrepreneurial person, so I’m kind of curious, what you would have done if you look back at, say, 2010, 2011, when Jonah Peretti reaches out to you, and you eventually decide you’re going to join Buzzfeed News. If you hadn’t done Buzzfeed News, how much longer do you think that you would’ve stayed at Politico? Where were you headed next? And, for listeners who don’t know, you and I were there together for a while, and this was the early days of Politico, which was new media at the time. 

BS: Yeah, Politico had kind of professionalized blogging. Like, there were these new digital tools that allowed you to publish really fast to the internet, which people were mostly using  — it’s actually a little like Substack now  — people were mostly using them to kind of opinionate. And then it was like, oh, you could run a real news organization in this thing. 

RG: Yes, Substack is kind of reinventing blogs.

BS: Yeah. I mean, you and I, when we were at Politico, there was a period where Politico was sort of the center of the universe, and compulsively hitting refresh on Politico was what you did if you were obsessed with politics. And, by 2011, I had gotten an engineer to install a little tracking code on my personal Politico blog without telling anyone, so I could see my own traffic in real time. 

RG: I saw that in the book and I was like, oh, wow, that’s…

BS: Ryan Mannion, thank you. And I could just see the traffic and the energy of the internet moving  — as you could feel it, too  — away from these blogs and this website, and toward Twitter, in particular. And being told, “Oh, can you write the big lead story for the website?” It had started to feel like, “Can you write the big print story?” Like, “Oh God, do I have to?” As opposed to, “Wow, this is how to reach a lot of people.”

And so, what was so appealing about what Jonah said to me was like, oh, I see the future, it’s this social media thing. Come do what you’re sort of already doing, which is write stuff you’re hoping will travel around on Twitter. You know, had that not come up, I don’t know. I mean, I think there was another wave of news organizations  — The Intercept included – coming, and I probably would have wound up at one of them. It’s just hard for, you know, when you’re a reporter who just wants people to read your stuff, and is right at that kind of coalface of both gathering and distributing information, you’re very, very sensitive to the changes in the ecosystem.

I mean, what am I saying? I obviously would just still be working for Politico. I don’t know. 

RG: Or you’d wind up there again, like so many former political people.  

BS: Yeah, exactly. I would have done a stretch at The New York Times and then be back at Politico writing a column, a joint column with Jonathan Martin, my old blogging partner at Politico. 

RG: Another interesting counterfactual that rises up in the book is, you actually rejected the offer for a moment, and Jonah Peretti then reaches out to Nico Pitney  — who was actually my former boss and colleague back at The Huffington Post  — and asks if he would like to do the job. I actually asked him about this last night after reading it in the book, he said he’s thought about that a bunch. No regrets, but it’s certainly something he’s looked back on a lot. You then kind of changed your mind. Your wife was like, you’re an idiot. Like, this is a really good opportunity, so you ended up taking it.

But I wonder if Nico had taken over Buzzfeed News, Buzzfeed Politics instead, and brought more of a kind of Upworthy-ish type of style to it, how do you think the history of Buzzfeed unfolds? 

BS: I think that, in some ways, Nico was more of the internet than I was, or of the sort of big internet; I was of the political internet, and I have thought about this. And I wonder, there’s a version of Buzzfeed that does a bit less original reporting and spends less money, that aggregates the way HuffPost did that Nico is very effective at, and that leans more into  — sort of naturally  — the progressive politics of that moment of the internet, and becomes more sort of happily left-wing, basically.

Whereas I was coming from a straight news thing, and my impulse with the news brand was to resist some of what I saw as kind of the temptations of traffic. To keep it, like, pretty neutral. And I don’t, I think that’s a pretty different path. You know, the person who really brought this home to me was Steve Bannon.

I went into Trump Tower in the summer of 2016  — I’m remembering this, because I wrote about it in the book  — and he was just so perplexed as to why we hadn’t turned into an all-out Bernie Sanders propaganda factory, the way he had turned Breitbart into a Donald Trump propaganda factory. Not because he had any particular views on Bernie Sanders, but just because obviously Bernie Sanders gets more traffic than Hillary Clinton. 

RG: You also write in the book that you noticed that Hillary Clinton was drawing an intense amount of negative energy. How much did you understand, in real time, what you were watching kind of unfold in the data? And how much of it makes sense to you now in hindsight?

BS: Much more in hindsight. I mean, I do think that we had this access to this Facebook data  — until they cut it off, because I think it was embarrassing to them  — that showed that this Donald Trump thing was really real. Like, this wasn’t some television illusion. People on Facebook — it was basically meant to be a tracker of which primary candidate people were talking about in the different states. The only person anyone was talking about was Donald Trump, and everything else was a rounding error, and that was, at the time, to us, kind of surprising. 

RG: This is the time that the progressive dominance on social media is starting to wane, and Facebook is starting to get taken over by the element that now, you know, has thoroughly colonized Facebook. And you write in the book about this moment where it appears like  — reading the way you report it  — that Jonah effectively knifed that site that I just mentioned earlier, Upworthy, which was this news outlet that sprang out of MoveOn.

And people will probably remember its really happy type of clickbait-y headlines, like, “A racist guy said this to a kid and you won’t believe how he shut him down.” Things that make you feel good about the world. And it was one of the fastest growing  — maybe the fastest growing  — media company in the history of the internet, which wasn’t very long at that point, but was also extremely vulnerable to getting killed by Facebook, because all of its traffic dependent on Facebook, and all of its traffic was based on tricks to get Facebook users to share it.

And Jonah then basically goes to Facebook and says, look at all of this clickbait stuff they’re doing with this, what they call a curiosity gap. They’re not really telling you what’s in the story, you have to click. Which is great for the people that click, but the 95 percent that go past don’t get any benefit out of that. They tweak that algorithm and Upworthy basically just implodes overnight.

And so, I’m wondering, did Facebook drive progressives off the site? Or did something just change about the world that made Facebook a less fun and useful place for progressives to be? Like, they did get rid of Upworthy, but they also got rid of everybody on the left.

BS: I mean, it’s so hard to put your head back into this moment when Huffington Post is founded in ‘04 to sort of help elect a Democrat in ‘08. You know, the HuffPost team loves Obama for a variety of reasons, including that he drives a lot of traffic. It’s kind of all in for him. Helps him win the primary, helps him win the election. Facebook is sort of starting to grow up there, and Obama visits Facebook as a company. It’s obviously, goes without saying, a young progressive force that’s aligned with the Democratic Party and with Barack Obama. 

I mean, I think mostly what happened was like, our parents got on the internet, you know? Like, I think the main thing that happened on Facebook is that it was initially a bunch of college kids who had the politics of college kids, and then it was everyone in America who had the politics of everyone in America. And it sort of began to skew older and more conservative. I mean, I think that’s the biggest picture.

But, certainly, yeah. I mean, Jonah was talking to them, Upworthy was a competitor. And Upworthy was doing a thing that I think Jonah would not let us do, because he was like, “Facebook is going to kill this, because they’re going to see it as a technical trick,” which is: “You won’t believe what’s in this video, but you have to click.” Which is pretty spammy. But I think they wouldn’t be wrong to feel kind of surprised that he was mentioning this to newsfeed executives. 

RG: Speaking of tricks, it makes you wonder about Buzzfeed as well. As you think back about it, do you think it was, at least on the news side, always doomed? Like, you write in the book that you basically paid people  — not Buzzfeed News, but let’s say Buzzfeed more generally  — it pays people to find the most viral things happening online. Then it repackages them, [and] serves them back to the internet. And, at some point, it feels like the algorithm is going to figure out a way to cut out the middlemen. It’s going to figure out what the most viral thing is, and put those things in between. It doesn’t need people, actual human beings at Buzzfeed doing that for them.

That feels obvious in hindsight. What’s your sense on what the place is for something like this? 

BS: You know, the challenge for Buzzfeed and for its generation of companies was that the insight that we were built on was that there was this new thing called “social media” coming. People were going to be opening their desktop computers, going to,, and looking at that first, not at your website first. And so, then the challenge for publishers, “How do I get my stuff into and”

And our theory was that this was like the birth of cable. These were the new pipes, and somebody was going to be CNN, and somebody was going to be MTV, and somebody was going to be Fox, and somebody was going to be VH1. But there was going to be a set of, essentially, content channels running through these new pipes. And, in fact, the chairman of both HuffPost and Buzzfeed, Kenny Lehrer, had been there at the birth of MTV, and I think that really influenced their vision a lot.

And then, what turned out was, you know, what is it? We’re 40 years into cable, and cable is still there, and that proved durable, and consumers kept watching it. You know, these social media pipes are basically going away. There are a lot of mistakes we made, a lot of tactical and strategic mistakes, but we also always knew we had this — I’m sure it’s in investor decks that our biggest dependency was on these social media platforms.

You know, consumers have moved away from Facebook. Facebook has also moved away from news for a variety of reasons, and from links, from the internet. Partly to keep consumers on their platform, not let them go somewhere else. And Twitter, you know, similarly, is in decline. That thesis just didn’t turn out to be true.

And so, all these companies are left kind of scrambling to find new pipes for their content, and that’s pretty hard. 

RG: Where do you find the new pipes? As somebody who has been thinking about this your entire career, back to city coverage to now?

BS: You know, I learned a lot from the people I worked with at Buzzfeed about this, but you have to think about, what do people want, where are people? In the beginning of our careers, Ryan, the maddening thing was that you were stuck with Newsweek, and like, these monopoly voices. And maybe you could get an alt weekly, but if only you could read the British and European press, and like, much less like independent voices who just didn’t buy the premise of the Iraq War, particularly. And these were sort of hard to find.

And so, then this explosion of new voices to sort of counter this discredited post-Iraq mainstream media was incredibly vibrant and rewarding, and people loved it. And it’s like, wow, I can just get everything everywhere all at once. But now we’re like, you know what? People are really sick of that. That has curdled and turned toxic, and people hate it, and they feel totally overwhelmed by just the amount of shit that is coming in. And, simultaneously, [they] kind of don’t know what to trust.

So, it’s not like the people have gone away, or changed. And it was always people. It was never technical. Like, you know, we’re not in a technical profession. It’s always delivering information to people who are interested. But I do think, now, what we’re trying to do is take great reporters who you can develop a relationship with, have them deliver the news in a very deliberately transparent way, where you say, like, “Here’s what I know, here’s my opinion on it. Here’s maybe somebody who disagrees with me.” You know?

And then, also to be pretty deliberate about saying, “And, by the way, here are some other sources that are kind of coming from a different place on the same thing.” And to put all that together because it feels like, in this moment, of basically reacting to the end of the last era, that that’s what’s most useful to people.

RG: As these social pipes get closed off, I wonder if the old platforms  — like, you know, HuffPost and Drudge  — are going to start to see a little bit of a rebound. That people start heading back directly to them for —

BS: You know, Max Tani at Semafor did a story this week that suggested to me that that is happening. Apparently this is sort of an interesting measure. Fox News has always been a huge Facebook publisher. Their Facebook traffic  — and I think that has a lot of overlap at this point with the demographic of the people who are on Facebook, like older, more conservative people  — they have seen their homepage traffic go up.

I find The Drudge Report relevant again. I now sometimes go there just to find out what’s happening, because Twitter doesn’t perform that service anymore. And then, the most interesting thing, I think, probably for both of us, is that when Jonah  — in what was critically kind of personally awful for me  — shut down Buzzfeed News, he decided to keep Huffington Post going, which he now also owns, because Huffington Post’s homepage remained powerful and big, and Buzzfeed News had never really developed a homepage.

RG: I noticed that line in his statement, that said that The Huffington Post is profitable, and it was kind of delightful to see him say that. It made me think back to the early days when I got there. I got there right after the 2008 election. And I remember for at least the first couple of years, on weekends in particular,  what we called our “splash,”  — which is the main story on the very top  — whatever story was up there would get something like, minimum, say 30,000 comments on it.

But, if you actually went into the comments, they weren’t people talking about the article. It was the chat room. People on weekends just all kind of agreed, I’ll see you here Friday night, Saturday night, maybe with a six pack of beer next to their laptop, just chatting away.

BS: It’s a social platform.

RG: It was a social platform. I was furious about this, but I was not the kind of person in a room to make this decision. We killed our comments section, at some point, basically at the behest of Facebook. You know, Facebook came in and said: You know, why don’t you just have Facebook comments at the bottom? And then we promise we’ll send a little extra traffic, then you don’t have to worry about all the libelous behavior going on in your comments section.

BS: You know, which was expensive and time-consuming to moderate. 

RG: Right. And so, that entire community of millions of people, just overnight, was just sent packing. And so  — maybe I could find it  — but around the middle of 2016 I gave a presentation at one of our little offsite retreats about what we’re going to do in the future. I had all of these different graphs showing that, yes, social is exploding, that’s where all of our traffic is coming from, but it can’t last, and they’re going to completely control our fate. 

BS: Wow. You were the guy who saw the future. 

RG: Yeah. I didn’t last much longer. And I want to go back and find that presentation, because I basically think I was suggesting Substack. I was saying, we need to make a community again, we need to bring back that sense of community. And, for all of our bloggers, say like, “Look, you can continue to blog, but we’re not going to call them blogs anymore. You can write, and you can email it then, out to your friends. But the deal is, then we’re also going to have access to these emails, or we can sell ads on them, or whatever.” Like, you’re building a gigantic ecosystem, mostly through email, which big tech will figure out a way to algorithm away, but it’s going to take a lot longer.

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RG: I saw in the book you mentioned that around this time you guys started looking at post-social media plays, like newsletters and other things, but didn’t move fast enough. Am I reading that right? Or what were you thinking around that time? 

BS: I think we always knew that we were too dependent on Facebook. It felt like that was the core of our strength, and it’s really hard to play away from your strengths. It’s really hard to have this unbelievable funnel of audience and money and attention, and to say, “Hey, we should hedge.”

The one place we did that successfully was in our food business. I don’t know if people remember Tasty, which continues to exist, which blew up on Facebook. And I think we realized like, oh, we’ve got to find ways to move this audience to YouTube, to the website, to other places. And I do think that ultimately if one in a hundred thousand of the Facebook visitors had been converted to a newsletter subscriber, we would’ve had a huge newsletter business. You know, assuming we were able to give people something they really wanted in a newsletter, which is pretty different from what you might want on Facebook, too.

And Buzzfeed was very — I think successful publishers in social media were very rooted in thinking about, well, what do people want to share? And that may not be what you want to get in your newsletters. 

RG: And speaking of video — and, not surprisingly, since your career is in print journalism — the book doesn’t get into video much, unless I missed it. I don’t think you go in on the Facebook-driven pivot to video? 

BS: No, I wrote about it a bit. I mean, it’s funny. Buzzfeed really was, I think, when it was strong, more sophisticated than other publishers on this stuff. And it didn’t just pivot to video, it built a huge video business of very inexpensively produced videos that people wanted to watch. And the thing that I think we were tuned into that some publishers fell down on was just that, you got these videos — it’s not, you can’t go producing TV, the economics don’t work, if you can produce videos extremely cheaply.

And at their best, they were like — you know, there was a great one of Chinese immigrants trying American Chinese food for the first time. That was a big genre, if you remember.  Mexicans try American snacks, Americans try Mexican. You know, you have a table, and you’ve got a few people, and it’s highly entertaining, and it’s so inexpensive, because the economics of digital media are so lean.

And the problem in news and news video, it’s just more expensive. You have to check facts, for instance. That’s expensive. And so, we were very, we did not do a lot of news video because it was too — for that reason. 

RG: Where do you see YouTube in the evolution of all of this stuff? And how do you think about video, with regard to Semafor?

BS: YouTube, I think, and all of these platforms, they use the word “creator” a lot. They love that word, because it’s sort of the way Uber uses “driver.” Like, Uber doesn’t want to deal with fleets, they want to deal with atomized individuals.

RG: Right.

BS: I mean, you may know a little bit about this, Ryan, but I think that there’s more leverage in groups of people than in individuals. 

RG: A little bit.

BS: And I think, whether that’s a union or a company or a cartel, these platforms are seeking and structuring forms of economic organization, where it’s very difficult to organize, and trying to kill the middlemen — see media companies as middlemen. And so, the economics really favor an individual creator.

That said, if you do really good work that’s aligned with journalism people love  — like Joe Posner did at Vox, in particular, with Explained  — you can do interesting work and build a big audience on YouTube, and you’re not going to make a ton of money there, but maybe you’ll break even. And then you can take that to, as he did, Netflix, and really do something really interesting.

And he’s now at Semafor, and we’re experimenting in a pretty careful way with video. Because, ultimately, TikTok is the platform of the moment, and a lot of people are getting news from short video. And, you know, it’s a genuine place consumers are getting news, but it’s also a very difficult place for publishers to make money, and so we’re being really careful.

RG: One of the great moments of the book, you’ve got this scene out in Facebook’s headquarters after the legendary dress story, which everybody will remember, back in 2015.

BS: It actually was a user  — a reader of Buzzfeed, in the sweet early internet days of Buzzfeed’s Tumblr  — had messaged us, and said, I took this picture at a wedding and I can’t figure out what color this dress is. 

RG: That’s right. And then she didn’t originally think there was anything to it. But then she shows it to people at work, which actually shows the value  — if there are corporate executives out there  — demanding that their worker bees come back to the hive. This is a moment where actually having people in the same space paid off, although I suppose you could just message it around if you needed to.

But yeah, so she asks people in the office, “What color is this?” And half of them see it one color, half of them see it the other. Next thing you know — You know, how many people ended up looking at that post? 

BS: Tens of millions. Tens of millions.

RG: And then, so, Jonah’s out at Facebook, and he’s talking to somebody who kind of runs the newsfeed or is involved with the newsfeed, and they say to Jonah, that was really fascinating, how often do you think something like that ought to be allowed to happen? And Jonah’s kind of taken aback, as I was when I was reading it. Like, who do you think you are to ask that question: allowed to happen? Like, it shouldn’t be up to you. But, of course, it is up to them, it’s their platform.

And, sure enough, as you write, that kind of was the last — you describe it as “the last innocent day on the internet.” It sort of was the last time that was allowed to happen.

What’s Facebook thinking there, in trying to shut down what, from other people’s perspective, is a massive success?

BS: You know, I think they were starting to see that they were losing control of the platform and they were starting to be criticized  — it was 2015  — for a new kind of nasty confrontational politics that was all over Facebook. And I’m sure they found the dress harmless, but I do think seeing, like, “Huh, this single thing can just reach everybody in the world instantly, and maybe it won’t, next time, be so harmless.” I mean, it might have been, it was probably a little worrisome.

RG: Do you think they regret any decisions they made as a result of that? Or do you think that they feel like those were the only choices they had, to take control in a way that they hadn’t before? 

BS: I think what people wanted from them changed. Like, they’re a company trying to sell ads, and are hearing everywhere that people hate all the toxic politics on their website, and everyone’s screaming at them and screaming at each other about news. And they kind of try to fix it, or think they’re trying to fix it in a way that then makes it way worse, where, basically like, you post something on — it’s called, they introduce this metric called “meaningful social engagement,” that’s meant to be like, well, if you really engage with a piece of content, that’s something people should see, because it’s meaningful. But what that actually means is, like, you post a Donald Trump meme, and then I comment, “Kill yourself,” 17 times in a row. And it’s like, “Wow, that was a meaningful social engagement, let’s show this to everyone.”

And so, I do think that their withdrawal from news and politics makes a certain amount of sense, if you’re them.

RG: And when you look back at this, and you’ve been thinking about it for a couple years now, are there decisions that people could have made differently that change how this unfolds? Or was this all baked in from the beginning? That, if you’re going to build the entire thing on the back of engagement, the thing that gets people engaging is toxicity, and that’s what we’re going to get.

BS: No, I think that there were technical decisions that did shape the culture of Facebook, for sure. I mean, also, the sense in which it was totally top-down and undemocratic. Like, what I think, if you think it through, is obviously the most successful social network in history, which is Reddit. You know, it has this very kind of democratic structure, in which mods  — who are unpaid ordinary weirdos like us  — have a lot of power. It’s very decentralized power. They are able to change with the times, and different parts of it can operate a bit differently. I do think these Silicon Valley executives are very ideological, and want to win arguments, in a way.

And culture changes, right? Something that was appropriate or interesting or felt acceptable at one point may be totally repellent three years later, and that’s not a[n] ideological decision, that’s just cultural change.

I think more broadly, with social networks, the reason they’re not like cable wires, they’re more like bars or clubs. Like, you go there because your friends are there, and then at some point your friends go somewhere else and you go somewhere else. And if they say, “Oh, we’ve installed a new sound system,” you’re not going to go back. Like, it just — Things change.

RG: To back up, you talk about how Drudge really changed the game for, at least, the more clever journalists. You don’t mention yourself, but people like you and I knew that there were outlets like Huffington Post or Drudge.

BS: Yeah, I was emailing your colleague Whitney all the time to try to get links on the front page of HuffPost.

RG: Exactly. I saw you said in the book that certain journalists knew the email address of the front page editor at the Huffington Post. I’m like, yes, certain journalists, including the author of this book.

But also, back when I was at Politico, I remember when  — and you write about this in your book  — Andrew Breitbart was in charge of  — during the day  — posting links on Drudge. And he would have his little instant messenger green light up there — I think it was “bmas,” if I’m remembering right, was his little, was his name.

BS: That sounds right.

RG: And it lasted for years after his death. And it stayed green. Do you remember that? 

BS: Oh really? I don’t remember that. That’s weird and sad.

RG: It was very eerie, because it kept popping up. But if I had a story that I thought that Drudge would be interested in, I would send it over that way. But, as I think about it, the stories that I would’ve thought then that Drudge was interested in are still the exact same kinds of stories that I think will traffic well on social, whether it’s Huffing Post or social media.

You know, there’s some interests that you know that, say, Drudge might have that are peculiar to him, or that Whitney over at HuffPost might have, that are peculiar to him. But, in general, you kind of know what clicks. So, how do you think about that today, as compared to 2007, 2008? 

BS: A lot of what we’re doing is sending out newsletters, and a lot of what I think about is what’s interesting to the audience of these newsletters, right? Who we’re reaching directly. But the Drudge report remains a big part of the internet, kind of amazingly. And Twitter, a diminishing one. But I think some of those vestigial blogger reflexes still work, but it’s a pretty changed world. 

RG: In your interview the other day with Kara Swisher, you guys talked a little bit about Buzzfeed News shutting down, and you mentioned that the unionization process at Buzzfeed News, and the fight over who’s going to be in the unit, who’s not, and the contract negotiations, had resulted in a level of — I don’t know if the word is “animosity,” but an intense relationship between the management and the staff that may have even factored into the final decision.

Do you think that’s right? Do you think that, as you’re seeing these media companies on the tail end of the social media arc, is the relationship between managers, editors, top editors, and unions, fundamentally kind of broken at this point?

BS: I don’t know. I mean, these things are always easier in times of plenty. The New York Times, there’s a very bitter conflict right now between management and labor, essentially for how to distribute the profits of a successful enterprise. Which, you know, I mean, it would be nice if it was less bitter, but it’s fundamentally an adversarial process, and that’s a great high-class problem to have: unions mad that the executives are getting big bonuses, the executives are worried about building, and they’d like to use the money for something other than raising the minimum salary. This is a healthy debate from a healthy company.

I think when things are bad, and you’re arguing over — you know, you’re glad you have a union, because it extends your severance. But, ultimately, it doesn’t change the underlying economic realities. 

RG: Last question and I’ll let you go. Did anything change for you in your understanding of the story that you lived, as you went back and reported it, researched it, and wrote it?

BS: Yeah. I think the thing that really surprised me was that, you know, I came up in a digital world that saw itself  — and I think was seen as  — basically progressive and of the left. I was genuinely surprised in reporting it out to see the extent to which the people who created the sort of populist right were just there the whole time. The guy who created 4chan  — he’s not himself a conservative, I don’t think, but who created that platform  — worked out of Buzzfeed’s office. Andrew Breitbart co-founded HuffPost. Bannon wanders through HuffPost at some point and kind of makes a study of it. You know, Benny Johnson, Baked Alaska.

Like, I think the extent to which we thought we were building this one kind of thing, and that actually the sort of main characters in this story were those other people, was a surprise for me.

RG: Right. The Andrew Breitbart who was dismissed, and just as this slovenly kind of weirdo in the Huffington Post office, you know, goes off and produces Breitbart, which has an incredible lasting legacy. Yeah, you’re right, it was all there.

How much of that do you think is a coincidence, and how much of that do you think is actually revealing about some of the structures and character of that early internet?

BS: I think we were totally, didn’t really, had not entirely thought through what we were doing. But I do think that, ultimately, the internet was going to swallow everything, right? It had been sort of this niche space, and I think when, ultimately, the big story of the 2010s is this new right-wing populism, it was totally intertwined. I don’t think it caused or was caused by  — in some, like, super simple way  — social media, but it was totally intertwined with it, and dominated it.

RG: Well, Ben, thanks so much. And, again, for folks, the book is called “Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral.” And congrats on the book.

BS: Hey, thank you, Ryan. Thanks for having me on. 

[Deconstructed end theme music.]

RG: That was Ben Smith, and that’s our show.

Deconstructed is a production of The Intercept.

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