BuzzFeed’s ‘Community’ Scam Is a Nightmare Come True
For every prize-winning post, countless other writers will work for free and never get a cent.
BuzzFeed has done nothing to me personally (that I know of). I've never been employed by BuzzFeed, and unless I'm forgetting about some submission I thought was witty enough to be published in 2015, I've never written for them. So you can imagine my surprise when, just yesterday, I got an email from BuzzFeed, asking if I wanted to be part of their new program paying members of their so-called "community" up to $10,000 if their content goes viral enough.
No, BuzzFeed is not promising to pay people for the mere act of writing for them. Of course not — that would be ridiculous! They are promising prize money to any "community writer" (read: people they are not employing in any way) who manages to crack a minimum of 150,000 page views. This, as anyone who has ever worked in the business of needing page views to see another day of work will tell you, is a real nightmare of a proposal.
Let's take a look!!
The email begins:
Think you can write a viral BuzzFeed list or quiz? Well, we're excited to announce our first-ever Community Summer Writers' Challenge, where we're giving away $$ to our top Community writers from June 15-August 15, 2021 [...]
I've never gotten a BuzzFeed email like this before, to my knowledge. I used the Google account where I received the email to log into BuzzFeed and see if I had a community account. It turns out that I'd created one on July 2, 2015, but there's nothing on it besides my Facebook profile picture from that time, and a link to my Facebook account. It doesn't even have a proper username. And I didn't have any email settings to change about getting a contest announcement like this. Which is weird, at least. But spinning this contest to vacant account holders isn't the greatest of BuzzFeed's offenses.
No, the greatest offense is what BuzzFeed is promising unpaid content creators. The email continues:
Between the dates listed above, BuzzFeed is paying you cash for each post you create that reaches a certain number of pageviews. You can earn anywhere between $150 and $10,000 per post you publish during this timeframe that falls within the following traffic tiers:
So here we are. If you get somewhere above 150,000 page views, BuzzFeed will award you with $150. Neat! There's also a $500 prize for up to 999,999 page views. But once you hit 1 million, the prize money grows exponentially — $2,000 for less than 4 million, and $10,000 for 4 million or more.
But if $10,000 for a quiz or list sounds too good to be true, that's because it is. Anyone who has worked in the industry of using page views as a metric of success will tell you that for every article or post that hits 4 million page views, there are countless more posted on the same day, at the same time, potentially on the same subject, that have no chance in hell of reaching those kinds of numbers. It's not impossible, but often the writers who do it have the resources and the backing — financial, institutional, all of it — to get those kinds of numbers. In my five years of working in this area between journalism and content creation, I've only come close to those numbers once — a blog about Meghan McCain that went berserk after getting into Google News. Maybe twice, if you count an article that was syndicated by Apple News, that no one saw a penny from.
And BuzzFeed's terms make the payment process even murkier. First, writers have to actively opt-in to participating in the contest, for every single piece of content they want to submit during this 61-day period. If an article goes viral but the writer didn't opt in for the competition, then too bad, you're not getting paid. You also have to monitor your dashboard for page views, as a failsafe to BuzzFeed missing your post going viral. The terms also state that "earnings are subject to taxation" and "BuzzFeed will disburse a 1099 tax form to all participants who receive a payout," which automatically makes any of these recipients independent contractors, and subjects their earnings of more than $400 from BuzzFeed to self-employment tax. So you can expect to owe at least $75 on your $500 prize for just shy of 1 million page views.
If I were younger, and not a journalist, I can imagine being excited at an opportunity like this — make something as simple as quizzes and listicles for a chance at $150, and $10,000 if you're really lucky. But here's how this contest is going to shake out, regardless of how much money any of these writers go home with: lots of smart, creative people will pour their time into crafting the wittiest, buzziest piece of content, for a very small chance it might get them a few hundred dollars, and an even smaller chance that it will get them a few thousand dollars. Meanwhile, BuzzFeed amasses hundreds or even thousands of new pieces of content without having to compensate the vast majority of these writers properly, because it's a contest, even though they're classifying these writers as contract workers in the end.
And all the while, BuzzFeed is also getting writers to promote their own content to boost their chance of virality. From the terms, again:
The #1 way that a post goes viral is by getting noticed by one of our Community editors and being promoted within our network. A post is only promoted on our network if a Community editor selects and edits the post for promotion. [...] However, you can use your own accounts to promote your Community post as well, like making TikToks about your post, putting your list or quiz in your bios, in Facebook groups, or whatever else you can think of!
If any of this sounds familiar, that's also because it is. A little over two years ago, amid a round of layoffs, one of BuzzFeed's most successful quiz and listicle writers shared the kind of bullshit that BuzzFeed pulled in order to compensate her for bringing in hundreds of thousands of page views with her content. The writer, Rachel McMahon, works for Netflix now, and she was able to publish a quiz book herself. But back then, she was, according to at least one BuzzFeed staffer, the site's second-highest driver of traffic worldwide, and BuzzFeed gave her jack shit — a branded swag bag — despite being, again, the most successful quiz writer they had working for them for free. From the Intelligencer Q&A with McMahon from January 2019:
How many have you made?
High hundreds. I went went through all my quizzes and counted them. If I didn’t mess up, 692 is the total.
Do you know what your biggest hit was?
I’ve made so many that it’s hard to keep track. If I go to my account, it shows how many each have gotten. Here’s one with 578,000. One with 428,000; 499,000; 534,000.
Is it fair to say BuzzFeed really encouraged you, as a community member, to contribute for free?
It always seemed to me that they wanted me to make quizzes, but now I’m getting responses [on Twitter] where people are saying I should have realized I was taking these people’s jobs. I never really got that vibe because they were telling us to make more quizzes.
Right, you were driving significant traffic, and revenue, for the company. Did you ever have any idea that was the case?
I never knew I was the second-highest driver worldwide. I always knew my quizzes did well based on my dashboard views. Toward the end of the year, BuzzFeed actually sent me a package with some clothes and water bottles, a recipe book, and a coffee mug — BuzzFeed swag stuff, I think you can actually buy it online. They told me I was the number-one user this year with all my views. I didn’t know it was that big of a thing, though.
At the time, I remember a few people online telling McMahon that she should have realized that her labor exploitation was somehow contributing to the layoffs, but of course that's a convenient, dishonest framing of the situation for BuzzFeed to benefit from: getting to abdicate responsibility for capitalizing off the page views generated by the work of unpaid people, and for cutting its staff while continuing to get this content made for them, for free. And it's still for free, no matter how much they want to claim they're compensating people through this contest. Because we know those metric markers are a scam, and so is the entire operation for dressing up unpaid labor as such.
Of course, this is also the same playbook that all social media platforms created and profited off of, the most recent being TikTok with its "creator fund": get the content creators on your platform to focus on making viral videos or articles or whatever else for free, in order to get enough attention for them get compensated, and then just ride their viral wave as their online host and reap the subsequent rewards. BuzzFeed knows what it's doing, and it's working: so far, Variety, Fast Company, and Yahoo! Finance (cross-posted from Variety) have boosted the competition, all coverage devoid of critical analysis. BuzzFeed is waving $10,000 in front of its unpaid writing community, how fun!
It is fair to say that getting this email from BuzzFeed was a punch in the gut for me. It elicited that familiar mixture of rage and borderline despair that you have to get used to if you work in this industry for long enough.
I'm tired of the instability of how I work, straddling between two gigs that end up being just enough, but giving up so much of my income to taxes and my steep marketplace health insurance. But then I look around, and the alternatives for what passes as "stable" in journalism aren't much better. I just wish we all had it better, and instead a media empire is testing out new ways to exploit people in order to pay them significantly less than what they deserve. Enough of this bullshit. Enough, enough, enough.