After Elena Kadvany, a writer for the local site Palo Alto Online, published the moving letter a sexual assault survivor read aloud in court to the man who raped her, BuzzFeed writer Katie J. M. Baker also published the letter for BuzzFeed’s much larger audience. It was a worthwhile way to use a huge platform, which Baker did with skill and sensitivity. Millions read it, including me, millions were moved, including me, and the appealing justice of “awareness” was served.
It seemed like we were going to get away with this being a nice, important thing that Baker published, until Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, tweeted this:
And Anne Helen Petersen, a BuzzFeed features writer said this:
I've never seen a social lift on a piece like the one on the letter from the Stanford sexual assault survivor pic.twitter.com/udAPevJE3g— Anne Helen Petersen (@annehelen) June 5, 2016
Way to package and serve content so that it engages users, guys. Listen up, legacy media!
The Dress was a viral phenomenon from February 2015, viewed by many media commentators as a watershed content event, which—just kidding. You know what the Dress was, and this was nothing like the Dress, except that a lot of people read a post on BuzzFeed.com and then shared it, which was good for BuzzFeed’s traffic and “social lift.” Don’t worry that you don’t know what “social lift” is, because it doesn’t matter. What matters is the size of the internet-induced journalistic hero complex that it takes to publicly applaud oneself and one’s staff for hitting mega-vi numbers on a piece about a brutal rape.
Yes, feel pride when your work as a journalist exposes people and institutions that have abused their power. But pride isn’t the same thing as implying that a piece inherently does good work because a lot of people read it. Don’t these tweets mistake the package for what’s inside it? Or is reach really the mark of goodness? If a man who read this piece because his bro shared it on his timeline proceeds in life with greater respect for women, to whom at BuzzFeed’s audience engagement team do I address my thanks?
I ask because these tweets are about one inch away from declaring that BuzzFeed, in providing an audience, provided value to this rape story, which it otherwise would have lacked. They tell us this rape story was valuable because of the platform it appeared on. It was good. We should all feel good. This is a feel-good story about the power of the internet. This is a feel-good story about the power of BuzzFeed’s metrics and content-distribution platform. Don’t you feel good?
Gawker and our sister site, Jezebel got little traffic bumps out of our coverage of this as well, and it didn’t feel good. The fairest part of me doubts that Smith or Petersen tweeted what they did with any glee, and I don’t mean to pick on them, anyway. After all, the virality economics of the worst days of all of our lives are by now encoded in the internet content machine. It’s just that we should feel no pleasure when we fire it up.
Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to reflect the fact that Buzzfeed received the statement—which was also posted online by the Santa Clara County district attorney’s office—directly from the victim.