To greatly paraphrase Tolstoy, you can explain anything to a complete ding dong if they know nothing about the topic, but you’ll fail to explain it to the greatest minds if they start with any preconceptions. Cognitive bias is powerful. People will pay more for a worse product if they think the brand is better.
BuzzFeed built a digital brand that can only be understood by living online during its heyday. The way reposted videos of TikTok fill Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook, is only slightly more pervasive than the level to which BuzzFeed content once filled social feeds. Everyone knew BuzzFeed, but few loved it.
The media company built traffic without an audience. BuzzFeed appeared to show you a compilation of oddly satisfying power-washing videos or a quiz to learn what kind of potato you were. Like the big-name cola that isn’t Coca-Cola, people knew the brand, but it was a preference for very few.
BuzzFeed News launched in 2011, and was shuttered in 2023. The news outlet won the George Polk Award, The Sidney Award, National Magazine Award, the National Press Foundation award, and a Pulitzer Prize. BuzzFeed News built an audience concentrated with news hounds and other journalists. Although BuzzFeed News was editorially separate from BuzzFeed in the ways that matter, the company never really shook the BuzzFeed brand.
The first rule of celebrity roasts is, tell jokes to make the widest audience laugh. In practice, this means a lot of jokes about Martha Stewart going to prison. Sadly for BuzzFeed News, the BuzzFeed brand meant, the jokes were about investigations into what K-pop star you’d be if a member of BTS bit you. Jokes no one could make about any other Pulitzer Prize winning outlet.
It hurt BuzzFeed News more because many of the highest-traffic articles are entertainment reporting of the gossip column variety. Here are three examples;
- Bhad Bhabie Said People Who Joined Her OnlyFans As Soon As She Turned 18 Should Be In Jail And Revealed She Often Receives Explicit Photos From Her Subscribers
- People Are Convinced That Miley Cyrus Just Slammed Liam Hemsworth For Cheating For Months After She Dropped Her Breakup Anthem “Flowers” On His Birthday
- Ray J Just Claimed That Kris Jenner Watched Multiple Different Sex Tapes Of Him And Kim Kardashian And Chose Which One To Release To The Public
I haven’t seen BuzzFeed News’ analytics, so I’m not claiming these are the highest-traffic articles ever published on the site. However, These articles cascaded more widely than the average article on the site. More people saw the headlines, and those brand impressions enforced preconceptions.
Almost every news outlet finds that sports and entertainment content are the major traffic drivers. But no other news outlets are cursed with BuzzFeed branding. Look, Gatorade is not called Pepsi Sports Drink for a reason.
The Twitter Blues
The world doesn’t need more articles about Twitter, I will publish this anyway because Twitter was an online home for some time for me and many others. Twitter is dead to me, at least for now, It could close or turn into 4chan tomorrow, and it would be no more dead to me. Still the Twitter blue check is a branding case study.
The blue check, once associated with identity verification came to be seen as a status symbol because of who had them. The first to get blue checks were those so famous that they were not only at risk for impersonation but were also likely to be harmed in a legally actionable way by impersonation. Beyoncé, Stephen King, and Barack Obama were not important because they had the blue checks, they had the blue check because they were important.
Twitter used this branding effectively for many years. A company could get the blue check as part of advertising deals. For a while it was a kind of open secret that spending a certain amount on Twitter ads would cause a blue badge to appear. The perceived eliteness of the badge most assuredly made Twitter money.
Verifying news outlets and journalist also helped build brand power. It made it easier for a subset of people with distribution outside of Twitter to gain visibility with the truly famous. Important people like to feel important, and knowing that reporters were following and engaging is a great way to keep someone too famous for Twitter active on the platform.
I got my verification back when the public could request it. I had to jump through a few hoops, filling out a form explaining why I deserve verification. I had to provide articles published in large, credibility-imparting media outlets that mention me by name to prove I was ‘noteworthy.’ I also had to submit photos of my ID and other documents to verify I was, indeed, myself.
I’ve also pointed out how random the verifications were,
No matter what as it stands now, Twitter’s verifications are strangely unbalanced. I’m a “blue check” because I’ve written words for famous places, but Nerd City, a YouTuber with a massive audience, and public reputation, is not?
If I’m a persecuted individual online, it’s not for this reason, but people hated small accounts with a blue checkmark by the name. People have parasocial relationships with social media creators who were not ordained by some sort of Twitter kingmaker. Lashing out at small verified accounts was a way of shaking a fist at a system that no one understood.
All of that fist shaking built up the brand. The fact that Rihanna, and Shannon Sharpe, and I the great and powerful Mason Pelt got blue checks, but Nerd City and Beth Bordan were not approved created mystique. The jokes about Thore’s hammer and the trolling all imbued a meaningless emoji with some form of significance.
Accounts like mine were proof that the system didn’t require fame. People started to believe that if they got a blue badge they would be taken seriously. This fed into the brand power of the blue check.
Shaking The Brand Curse
Elon Musk was able to do in months what BuzzFeed News couldn’t do in years; completely eradicate prior brand perceptions. Making the blue checks a clear transaction that everyone understands scrubbed away the patina. Doing away with the legacy checkmarks took away the last bits of aureole for the symbol.
To save the value of the shit coin Musk started handing out blue checks to celebrities. This was the nail in the coffin for the blue check’s brand. A diverse array of truly famous people who didn’t like the implication that they paid for a trophy denounced the blue check like a scarlet letter.
Musk managed to get public statements from some of the most influential folks on the platform and the planet that the blue check isn’t cool. Here’s a partial list: Paul Krugman, Chrissy Teigen, Lil Nas X, Stephen King, LeBron James, the Auschwitz Memorial, Dril (the king of trolls), Ian McKellen, Riyad Mahrez, Trixie Mattel, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jon Favreau (not the director), and many more. No one is so cool that their use could recover the brand the blue check once had.
Brands are hard won, and as BuzzFeed News shows hard lost. But a business genius like Elon Musk probably could have ended BuzzFeed News faster, more violently, and with less dignity. Good bye to BuzzFeed News, and good riddance to Twitter.
Perhaps worth a disclosure that the @masonpelt Twitter account was put into limbo after I pretended to be Elon Musk’s mom on March 31, 2023. Twitter insists that the account is hacked, and that the email for the account is incorrect despite proof to the contrary. The account maintained it’s blue check as a warning that Musk has mommy issues until April 20, 2023.