Last week Luke Lewis, editor of Buzzfeed, came to talk to some of his most avid users; Oxford students. For those of you who don’t spend all your time procrastinating on this great website, Buzzfeed is an online news site, who produce articles like ’21 Pictures Of Politicians In Wellies Staring At Floods’, ‘27 Middle-Class Problems’, and ’26 Very Good Reasons to Fall In Love With A Northerner’. Starting in 2006 in the US, in March 2013 Lewis and two others began Buzzfeed UK; “it was all pretty low key”. They’re now up to a team of sixteen, have 150 million users and are in a position to recruit new employees.
Asking Lewis what the key to Buzzfeed is he cites ’27 Middle-Class Problems’ as “a real break for us”. It was basically “people on Twitter winging about really inconsequential things” and it was then that they realised “self-depreciating humour is something we do, it’s a very British thing”. For example, Buzzfeed did a quiz entitled ‘How Much Of A Wanker Are You?’ which Lewis himself did and received the flattering response, ‘You Got: A Collosal Wanker’. Aside from this humorous approach, Lewis explains that “the whole ethos of Buzzfeed” is “to make things shareable”.
This doesn’t always mean that articles cannot be serious. One of Buzzfeed’s most shared articles recently was entitled ‘36 Photos From Russia That Everyone Needs To See’ which was created in response to the difficulty the LGBT community is experiencing in Russia and depicted bloody photos from a recent gay rights march; many photos show police beating activists to the ground or detaining them. Lewis laughs, “I’m pretty unused to serious journalism. Well I used to be a music journalist…which isn’t really journalism” but says that this article is an example of serious journalism that does work on a site like Buzzfeed.
After all, “Buzzfeed makes big lists” which you wouldn’t always think lends itself well to serious journalism. But, explains Lewis, David Knowles who works for The Economist and recently did a Buzzfeed article – ‘15 Facts That Reveal The Utter Insanity Of Britain’s Housing Market’ – was “bold-over” at how well the format worked for serious journalism. Lewis explains “this wasn’t intended, it was just accidental”. He has been asked at many conferences whether he would like to make Buzzfeed a site for more ‘serious’ journalism: “people want us to say ‘we used to be about cat gifts and now we’re about news’, but I’m really loathe to say that because it’s a bit like saying ‘fuck you’ to all the talented people that have worked for us”. Moreover, “it’s really important to have writers that have the freedom to just make themselves laugh”.
This humorous approach began when Jonah Peretti, an employee of the Huffington Post, began Buzzfeed back in 2006: “I don’t think he ever intended Buzzfeed to be this huge thing, it was just something he could play around with in his free time”. Indeed, “it started as an experiment: initially, it really was just a pet project”. Lewis’ own route into Buzzfeed was equally casual. At the end of 2012, he “was just a really big Buzzfeed fan” and without Buzzfeed advertising for a UK editor, he simply emailed them, having “mocked up how the UK homepage would look”. “They didn’t have to advertise or anything – I came to them. Since then they’ve been really hands-off – I think they realise that it has to be distinctly British”. This involves some of the self-depreciating, distinctively British humour that is often missing in US Buzzfeed; often the stories that go viral there are very straight whereas more often than not in the UK the stories that are most shared are funny or ironic – one of the most shared articles was ‘9 Shocking Photos of the Devastation Wrought By the St Jude Storm’ mostly depicting garden chairs blown over. Lewis explains “we try and get people to share things that make them feel good. There is obviously a limit to this – you can’t only write about things that make people feel warm and fuzzy”. On the other hand, Lewis ends modestly, “I’m not in a position to tell people how to do journalism”. Instead, he welcomes freelance articles so those who have some good ideas for Buzzfeed articles simply email Lewis on Luke.Lewis@buzzfeed.com!