Why you're about to see fewer words on the internet

This quote, from BuzzFeed chairman Ken Lerer, positively smacks of protesting too much:

“Anyone who thinks that this isn’t a terrific time to be in digital content is dead wrong,” Lerer said. “It’s a fantastic time.”

Lerer, of course, is talking about the reports that BuzzFeed had to cut its revenue goals for this year by half. Also of note is this line, from Re/Code reporter Peter Kafka, later in the piece:

Lerer wouldn’t discuss BuzzFeed’s performance last year, and he wouldn’t talk about the company’s financials in any further detail.


Anyone who works with Facebook knows that Facebook sharing is down significantly as of late. This is a huge problem for media companies, because media companies have basically accepted Facebook as the sole portal to their sites. Nobody goes to blogs or news sites as destinations anymore; they go there from Facebook. Let me ask you this: have you ever intentionally gone to buzzfeed.com, just to click around? Do you even know what the landing page at buzzfeed.com looks like?

The internet is an economy that is powered by bubbles. Someone has a good idea, and then everyone floods the space with similar junk, and then the whole thing implodes and one or two shrewd survivors manage to claim all the scorched earth as their own. It happened with Amazon, with Google, and Facebook. It's happening right now with media sites. The bubble is, eventually, going to pop. Maybe not this month. Maybe not this year. But it will pop, and a whole lot of writers are going to be out of work because of it.

In the beginning was "content." BuzzFeed, using a lot of money from a lot of investors, took over the content space. They had listicles, yeah, but they also hired real reporters to do real reporting. Ask any social media person at any media company, though, and they'll tell you that actual news stories and opinions — you know, groupings of words ordered in sentences and paragraphs — are not sharing on Facebook as well as they used to. People are interested more in memes, by which I mean little pictures with a small amount of words printed on them. They're more share-friendly, they take no time to digest, they're simple.

And now, BuzzFeed is betting big on live video because Facebook has decided that the future of Facebook is video. Video is a different kind of business than writing. It requires more money, more time, and a completely different skill set. I wouldn't be surprised to see some other company steal BuzzFeed's buzz on video. If that happens, Facebook will likely do what Facebook does best: start favoring the more efficient and popular content provider and ignore the one that does not perform as well. That would be the beginning of the end for BuzzFeed.

Please note, though, that none of this has to do with the Seattle Review of Books. We don't rely on the traditional advertising model — we have a better model — and so we don't need to score ever-higher numbers of clicks. We're scaled right for the kind of site we want to be, which means we don't have to compromise our values or our mission because Facebook tweaked an algorithm and all of a sudden two million fewer people are visiting the site every day or something like that.

So what does this mean for you and the Seattle Review of Books? Nothing much, really. If you find us on Facebook or Twitter, you can keep doing that. We love it when you visit. If you come to our site directly through seattlereviewofbooks.com, you're who we had in mind when we designed the site. That makes us tremendously happy and we hope we make it worth your while to visit.

But what does this mean for you and the internet? It means your Facebook feed is about to get a lot more loud and video-centric. It means these content mills — BuzzFeed, Upworthy, Gawker — are about to get a lot more desperate to attract your eyeballs, and they're going to use a whole range of off-putting strategies to do that. It means that long articles might get a little more scarce on the internet over the next few months or years or however. It means a lot of writers will probably be out of work.

What can you do to stop the bubble from bursting? Nothing, probably. Facebook doesn't listen to anyone; it's the creepy overlord of the internet, and media companies are desperate to do its bidding. Just keep reading things you like, and sharing it with your friends however you share things with friends — Facebook, Twitter, e-mail.

The happy news is that writers will not stop writing just because some outlet or another collapsed. And maybe those writers will come together and start something newer and better after the bubble bursts — something sturdier and less prone to the fidgety compulsions of a few Silicon Valley jerks. Don't panic. You'll always have something to read. You might just have to work a little harder to find it.