This Is Not About You, BuzzFeed

Social lift is just that—social.

Photo: Tech in Asia/Flickr.

Last week, BuzzFeed ran a post that reproduced in full a letter written by a rape victim to her attacker. The letter is, as the headline says, powerful. Over the weekend, my social feeds were flooded with comments like “if you read one thing, it should be this,” or “required reading,” or “this is extremely important.” I agree with all of those things! I read the letter and shared it and I think every man, woman, and child should be exposed to the uncomfortable truths that come with having a body and sometimes not having control of it.

By last night, it was apparent the BuzzFeed post had gone hugely viral. In an era of “the dress” and “the watermelon,” this will now be known as “the letter,” and it will henceforth be shorthand for an order of magnitude on the web traffic Richter scale. Already people are commenting on the piece’s tremendous “social lift” (greater than 7.9x!!). The letter, which was provided to BuzzFeed News, had also been available for almost twenty-four hours on Santa Clara County’s government website before BuzzFeed posted it. Undoubtedly, it wouldn’t have made as much of an impact had Katie J.M. Baker, who has been toiling away on this depressing beat for a very long time, not been employed at the Most Important Site Of Our Time.

This moment is a long time coming, to Ben Smith’s great credit: he and Shani Hilton built a strong, fast, and far-flung news team that now approaches the Associated Press and Reuters in getting to big, groundbreaking stories first and often. BuzzFeed has built a megaphone, by which the letter was amplified. I get what Smith and others are saying: they are proud to be part of the institution that helped broadcast an important story.

Except it wasn’t a story. This was not an American dialect quiz or a feat of months of reporting. It was a victim’s impact statement. It’s great that millions of people have read the letter, which was also read aloud on the air in full by CNN anchor Ashleigh Banfield. It took up twenty-three minutes of air time, about the equivalent of three segments, or half her broadcast:

Saying, “Look how many shares this story has” is interesting, to a point. There will always be a post-mortem; data scientists and the Nieman Lab will do the autopsy. But those numbers are usually celebrated and discussed internally. And they only give us a small part of the story. Seven, eight, nine million views? That sounds like a lot, but compared to what? Zero views? They should be way higher, frankly, and in this particular case, attaching a brand name to those reads or shares or sets of eyeballs reached is crass. But claim credit they will, and you can bet they’ll make money, too. But is it really that bad to tout your social reach if you use your money and powers to spread Big, Important Stories—isn’t that what journalism is all about? Don’t hate the player, hate the game [cue Janet Malcolm quote]. But worst of all, associating it in our minds with the latest viral sensation only reminds us how BuzzFeed celebrated that one:

Of course, the letter is not anything like the dress, though both are squarely within BuzzFeed’s territory: social news and entertainment. Are you not entertained? Is Brock “Two Mugshots” Turner—a young, white, privileged male athlete—not the perfect villain for 2016? But the only person who owns this story is the letter writer, and the only share that matters is the one she decided to make with the judge and the courtroom on June 2. That she took it to BuzzFeed the following day is her own prerogative, and I support that too:

Besides, the thing to share today is the secondhand aggregation of comments from the two Swedish men who caught the attacker, lest a woman remain the hero for too long.