The New York Review of "Traffic" Reviews

Vol. 01, No. 01: Our inaugural farewell issue

Ben Smith’s book “Traffic” about Gawker and Buzzfeed and what was the viral web that was finally published yesterday, and I read all the reviews of it so you don’t have to. Let’s go:

The Baffler, Traffic Jam by Leah Finnegan—If you’re only going to read one review of “Traffic,” this is not a bad choice. Leah was present and involved in the internet news scene of the 00s and 10s, and she understands that “this is a bad business, and anyone who gets into it is a fool, myself included.” Since those early days, Finnegan has unfortunately renounced her primary talent, which is being mean, so this review could and arguably should have been a lot meaner. But it’s not too long and doesn’t waste much time rehashing canned anecdotes from the book, and it has a solid kicker: “One of the hardest things in this business is to start a website and expect anybody to notice before the money runs out.” If the new Gawker was still around, this would have been its first good post.

The New Yorker, BuzzFeed, Gawker, and the Casualties of the Traffic Wars by Nathan Heller—Notable in The New Yorker for not starting with a date, but in keeping with New Yorker standards it is a bit too long and takes a while to get anywhere. It gets good when Heller eventually takes an interest in Smith’s actual language, down to specific word choices like the focus on our plucky media business heroes’ middle-class cars or his borderline-libelous descriptions of Andrew Breitbart, Peretti’s HuffPost co-founder who died on the toilet in 2012, and who:

…is variously described as “fat and stressed,” a “pudgy fire starter,” “a frenetic, overweight fleabag of a man,” “a hyperkinetic embodiment of attention deficit disorder,” and a “hyperactive pigpen of a right-wing lunatic, whose belly hung out from underneath his ratty T-shirt.”

Lol. Also this is a good paragraph:

Once, a magazine like this one was responsible for three tasks. It had to create original material to sustain its community of readers. It had to distribute itself, through marketing and deliveries. And it had to sell advertising on the basis of that audience’s perceived nature and number. The tasks easily rested against one another, like three muskets by the fire. Publications were able to control their destiny as much as anyone in the dark woods.

The more I think about this one the more I retroactively like it. So I guess it’s a good choice if you have some time to spend.

Bad Medical Takes posted a screenshot of a tweet by lorisue920: “Women have a pelvis, Men do not. Plain and simple.”

The Washington Post, Why BuzzFeed joined Gawker in the internet news graveyard by Max Read—Another Gawker alum. “It’s interesting that all the former Gawker people are getting the assignments and not the former BuzzFeed books desk,” observed a friend of mine, “feels like a tacit admission of some kind.” Possibly an admission that in the Gawker vs. BuzzFeed rivalry, Gawker was the one that consistently produced better writers. Perhaps we’ll eventually get a Tom Scocca review. But in the absence of that, Max Read worked for Nick Denton for five years that probably felt like fifty, from 2010 to 2015, and is temperamentally the most inclined of Smith’s reviewers to point out “that Gawker and BuzzFeed were, in the grand scheme of things, not particularly important.” Ultimately, Read argues, the viral news era was a lot of “Oz the Great and Powerful” theatrics while behind the curtain Peretti was wangling Mark Zuckerberg to keep the firehose of social traffic pointed at BuzzFeed, until he couldn’t do it anymore.

Slate, A Dishy New History of Online Media Leaves Out Half the Equation by Dan Kois—A decent, view-from-the-trenches review that makes one key point I didn’t see anyone else make about the book’s whole Gawker vs. BuzzFeed premise, which is that:

…the vast majority of websites that published for clicks over the past 20 years go unexplored: the A.V. Club, the Onion, the Awl, Hipster Runoff, Free Darko, Fire Joe Morgan, Grantland, Deadline Hollywood, TMZ, Salon, Television Without Pity, Stereogum, Videogum, the Toast, the Hairpin, Rookie, Bustle, Gothamist, all the various other -ists, Pitchfork, MP3 blogs, WorldStarHipHop, Daily Kos, FiveThirtyEight, Wonkblog, Axios, TPM, Business Insider, Yahoo News, the Daily Beast, MSN, Mic, Boing Boing, Fark, and uncountable more ranging from idiosyncratic passion project to VC-funded Future of Media. This isn’t even to mention the web efforts of legacy outlets, many of which did have an impact, then and/or now: the Atlantic, the New Republic, Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, the Stranger, Complex, Cracked, ESPN, MTV, all the news networks and newspapers that aren’t the Times. Tumblr—Tumblr!—is mentioned only in passing. So is Perez Hilton. ClickHole, the canniest-ever critic on the subject of virality, doesn’t appear at all.

Kois makes a good case that without the predetermined two-protagonist structure, this would have been a better and more interesting book.

Samantha Cole tweets: “google searches for "vpn" in the last 24 hours.... lol,” above an image of the US with only Utah colored in dark blue. Below is a quote tweet of Cole’s earlier tweet: “as of today, people in Utah trying to visit Pornhub will see a video message from @CherieDeVille explaining why they can't”

The New Republic, They Did It for the Clicks by Aaron Timms—Starts with a funny recap of eight years of BuzzFeed “Which Cheese Are You” quizzes, then suddenly starts talking like Sephiroth:

Informational chaos, not narrative clarity, is the internet’s guiding epistemological mode. The digital era has staged a corporate contest not for truth but for attention—a malleable asset that can be put to countless uses…

Ok, I guess! This one’s got a real “I consider myself a dialectical materialist” vibe.

The New York Times, How ‘Going Viral’ Became a Thing by Virginia Heffernan—Heffernan has been a NYT-branded blue-chip Name for virtually the entire time span of the events in this book, and she has no obvious stake in any of it, so assigning her the review feels like the Times putting one last boot into the corpses of the would-be upstarts it has now definitively buried. It’s a characteristically Timesian choice, since in taking the opportunity for a little editorial gloating, they have missed the opportunity to publish a review worth reading. This one is superficial and vapid.

And if you haven’t read it yet, here’s an encore link to John Herrman’s New York Magazine post “The News Went Viral,” which is less a review of the book and more a review of the relationship between media and tech for the past twenty years. I don’t remember the last time a Tabs link has prompted more people to email me about how depressed they are after reading it.

Ben Smith also made the podcast and interview rounds, talking to Joe Pompeo in Vanity Fair; Felix Salmon, Emily Peck and Elizabeth Spiers in Slate Money; Ryan Grim in The Intercept’s “Deconstructed”; and Nilay in Decoder. Have I listened to any of these? No! The finite seconds of my one wild and precious life are ticking away, I’m not spending them on that. I did listen to Recode Media where Peter Kafka got Ben, Jonah Peretti and Nick Denton all together, but even at a mortality-sparing 1.5x speed, Denton sounds anesthetized and seems to have moved on from caring about media. I love that for him.

Speaking of Nick Denton, here’s Intern Camille with:

Today in Monsters

Did you see the AI Furby?

While it obviously ties into current AI hype, and maybe recalls the 90s Furby "spying" panic a little, I was struck by how much it reminded me of Sherry Turkle's 2011 book, Alone Together

Turkle looked at the burgeoning impact of interactive technology partly by studying how children play with Furbies, and she really pinpoints the ontological dread of the Furby. At one point, a girl in the study says that her Furby is both "dead and fake." To her, it is alive enough to die, but not alive enough to be "real." 

Arising from a late 90s toy trend of "embrace technology or die," Furbies were designed to be cute and meant to invite emotional connection. But they're also unsettling, as the popularity of "weird" Furbies shows. They straddle an uncanny line: soft and wide eyed, but with stilted and mechanical motions which makes us feel like something is "wrong."

One of Jeffery Cohen's Theses on Monster Culture states that “The Monster Is the Harbinger of Category Crisis,” and Furbies hover between machine and creacher without any clear dividing line, while still demanding an emotional connection. As a result, Furbies might be the ideal vessel for whatever fears about technology are most prevalent at the moment.

The archaic word of the day is ramage: the warbling of birds in the trees (much like the warblings of Furbies in an organ).

—Camille Butera is all creacher, no machine

Good god what a wall of text, and I promised I would write less today. We are absolutely flaking tomorrow, see if we don’t.

Let’s wrap it up: Don’t miss this rare free Ask Molly ⍟ Future failed media startup The Messenger will “launch May 15 with 150 journalists,” good luck, gang! ⍟ Today in Crabs ⍟ “Bluesky showed everyone’s ass,” Sarah Jeong is one of the all-time greatest ⍟ So is Liz Lopatto, who has the guts to ask is Andreessen Horowitz actually mid? ⍟ T_H_E___M_A_C_H_I_N_E_S address the impending AI gray goo crisis ⍟ Welcome to The StopgapDanny and Jo also talked to Laura Hazard Owen about their new blog ⍟ and Flea wrote a letter to Joyce Carol Oates.

Today’s Song: Gully Boys, “Russian Doll”

Music Intern Sam alternatively proposed a 10 minute atmospheric oontz oontz oontz dance track for today and maybe I shouldn’t second-guess him? Please let me know if you enjoy this kind of thing. And please subscribe if you read all of today’s newsletter, if I never hear that story about Jonah Peretti’s sweatshop Nikes again, it will be too soon.


or to participate.