THE DARK SIDE OF BUZZFEED

 

I remember the first time I got an email for Buzzfeed asking if I was available to be featured in a video and just how excited I was. Buzzfeed was a website that i looked up to for so long and I was flattered that they were even familiar with me and wanted me to potentially be in one of their hugely successful videos. Buzzfeed, to me at the time was this giant that I respected and adored and I remember being so nervous and so overjoyed when I was about to film my segment of the video piece. Filming was easy, but I was discussing something that was very personal to me: Being transgender. I was nervous about this because, at the time, I was so nervous about being outed as a trans person to my employers, but I thought to myself that this video is more important than me and that surely Buzzfeed would reach a lot of people and this video would change a lot of minds… and it did. It also caused me to be outed to my employers and eventually my landlord and long story short: I had to find a new place to live. Buzzfeed paid me nothing and I signed papers ensuring as much.

Shortly after I was in that video, I was contacted by a Buzzfeed talent recruiter who had come across my content on Youtube. They told me how much they loved my stuff and they wanted to talk to me about the possibility of doing a residency at Buzzfeed. This meant that I would have the opportunity to organize and film original content for Buzzfeed. I was really excited by the possibility of doing this and I thought this was an opportunity that would change my life. There weren’t many people of color at Buzzfeed and there certainly weren’t many trans people so I figured that I’d be able to cross a lot of diversity check marks off the list.  They told me that they’d get back to me after they review other candidates and I was heartbroken when I eventually heard that they already filled the slot. But whatever, I’m the sort of person that views rejection as a blessing. Sometimes things come to you and are taken away from you because you’re not meant to have them, and I didn’t quite understand how much of a bullet I dodged until recently.

I live in LA and I know a lot of people and one of my friends, who I’m going to not name here, used to work on Buzzfeed’s Diversity team. I had no idea this was even a thing, but Buzzfeed has a Diversity Team… that is until they fired everyone because their content wasn’t making enough views. Buzzfeed is Buzzfeed after all; the “buzz” is important. Trending content that makes a lot of money for the company will always be valued over the platform that Buzzfeed can potentially give to marginalized voices. Buzzfeed is one of those sources that you almost can’t avoid and they’re that way because they dominate trending topics and make videos about almost everything you can possibly think of. However, with all the money they make from their content, they apparently don’t have very much of it for the people who create it for them.

A few months ago, I was contacted by a Trans guy that works at Buzzfeed- a man I can only assume got the job I was up for earlier. He added me to an email chain of some of the hardest working trans people in LA, a lot of whom I’ve either worked with or have known of. He wanted us to all come down to Siren Studios, where Buzzfeed shoots, and brainstorm ideas for trans content for the website. Initially, when I got this email, I was flattered that they asked me. I had long conceded that perhaps I’d never have employment with Buzzfeed, but by then I’d been doing speaking across the country and didn’t particularly care about that job anymore. I thought about it like this: Buzzfeed is a platform that can reach millions of people. It is important. It is valuable, it is this source that impacts so many lives and is in the feeds of so many people. I was willing to come down to the studio, give my suggestions and walk away without expecting any sort of monetary compensation because the impact was more important than my personal income. Then a few people chimed into the email chain and I couldn’t help but agree. One person asked “Are we going to be compensated for our time?” and went into depth about how often trans people work for free or very little and create these things that are profitable for cis consumption, but are never able to see compensation. This is a perpetuation of the oppression that marginalized minorities face and when you factor in Buzzfeed as an idea, it creates a situation where as a person with a voice that’s hardly heard, you feel as though you should be thankful for even having the chance. So you’re willing to work for very little or for free and who gets paid for your story at the end of the day? Cis white men. So who cares if you needed to pay rent or afford your medications for the month. Ultimately, you should be thankful for the chance and continue to work for free. When pressed on this, the trans guy in question said that Buzzfeed “simply didn’t have the budget” for consultants. In response, a fellow trans consultant said that “being able to work for free was a privilege”.

Now, let me make this very clear: I don’t blame the trans guy in question. I actually think he’s an amazing guy with a lot of dignity and I respect him a lot, way before he worked for Buzzfeed. However, he had bought into the idea that we, as marginalized voices, must simply work for free if we ever want to be heard. In truth, Buzzfeed is not unlike any other media company in Hollywood or the entertainment industry in general. The game is, you work for free, you stay late, put more work in and the idea is that one day, one day, you’ll get a long lasting gig and you’ll be able to do what you love and get paid for it. Let’s just be honest here: stories of marginalized minorities are profitable stories. Buzzfeed has a way of putting content out that ultimately causes controversy and then that controversy cycles back into their pockets even when they’ve done wrong. I remember being on a panel with Quinta from Buzzfeed in Charleston. We discussed a video that went viral where a black intern was painted by a makeup artist with a foundation that just didn’t match her tone. Quinta is woke with a capital “W” and you could see in her eyes when she responded to this inquiry that she didn’t like it and thought it was a messed up situation, but she ultimately said that the point of Buzzfeed is to get you to talk. Good or bad, the point is to get you to talk; and there’s been a lot of talk about Buzzfeed these days.

Gaby Dunn is a former Buzzfeed employee who recently published an article about her experience at Buzzfeed that gives you an inside view of the inner workings of being a Buzzfeed employee. She describes her experience at Buzzfeed as one that was established on the foundation of her being an eager 22 year old that just wanted to work. She signed contracts without reading them because all she wanted at the end of the day was to work, like most young creatives wanting to break into the industry. She slowly but surely started to realize that all that glitters is not gold. That she had signed herself into an exclusivity agreement that made it so that she couldn’t pursue work outside of Buzzfeed and forbade her from working with competing companies. Brittany Ashley and Jenny Lorenzo are both former Buzzfeed employees who were fired, rather abruptly, after it was discovered that they were filming Gente-fied, a web series by America Ferrera. Buzzfeed decided that the show they were filming for was a competitor for a show they were developing and decided to let them go. This is not uncommon in the film industry. It’s why you almost never see people in Buzzfeed shows in anything other than Buzzfeed shows. For some people, it works, but it can feel very stifling to people wanting to spread their wings beyond Buzzfeed while maintaining a steady job. Brittany and Jenny both maintained spaces at Buzzfeed that created content for marginalized minorities that have now been depleted. On one hand, I think removing them showed Buzzfeed’s true colors, but on the other, I’m sad to see that space being made smaller. Buzzfeed has creative quotas that often pressure their creators into making sub-par or laughable content that often panders to the lowest common denominator of its audience. You would be surprised, however, by how while they get rid of creators of color, at the same time, they leach from creators of color outside of Buzzfeed’s employment; and in true Buzzfeed fashion, they don’t “have the budget” to compensate them either.

Akilah Hughes is, personally, one of my favorite black women on YouTube. She creates relatable content that makes you think about everything from feminism to what to wear to the bodega. One of her more popular videos is How To Be An Introvert — According to Tumblr Ep. 1 and it was published January 20th 2015. On June 29th 2016, Buzzfeed Video uploaded The Perfect Weekend for an Introvert. Akilah’s video is longer, while Buzzfeed’s is under a minute, but you’ll notice that they both make the same exact Netflix joke in essentially the same exact way. The thumbnail of the videos are also disturbingly similar and while I’d like to remain skeptical and say that “nothing’s new”, I can’t ignore that there are similarities and that this isn’t the first time they’ve stolen content. Buzzfeed regularly steals content from places like Reddit, Tumblr and Pinterest and presents them as original ideas created by them and their staffers. We could, of course, argue that everything is free game and that no one owns anything, but consider that in the almost two years Akilah’s video has been posted, it’s managed about 54k views and Buzzfeed’s in the space of a day has managed 115k views. According to vidIQ, that estimates about $80 of total earnings over the space of about 2 years for Akilah’s video and $172 for Buzzfeed’s in the space of a day. The main reason I’m writing this is because Akilah recently learned that she has Lyme Disease and it has made it very hard for her to continue producing content. This, to me, feels like a dagger in her heart and there was no consideration for what she was going through, and they don’t care. This year I had the pleasure of attending my first ever Vid Con where I was featured on 4 panels, including one main stage panel. All of them were about diversity and I wouldn’t have been there had it not been for Akilah calling Vidcon and YouTube as a whole out for their lack of support for diversity and creators of color. Akilah lobbied and wrote to YouTube and she was one of the people who helped create #YoutubeBlack, an initiative by Google to promote and support the work of Black YouTubers. She is a force that has enacted change in the online video community and it pains me to see her being taken advantage of like so many other creators by the media giant that is Buzzfeed.

To be completely honest, it hurts writing this. It hurts because Buzzfeed is a platform that I have for a very long time held quite a bit of respect for. I appreciated that it was one of the few places where I could actually see marginalized minorities presented to a mainstream audience and that it started conversations that would probably not have been had otherwise. Now, however, I can’t view Buzzfeed the way I used to. Like most mainstream publications, they only care what sells and have found marginalized voices so unmarketable that they’ve gotten rid of their entire diversity team. What this is, in short, is exploitation. Buzzfeed is eager to cash a check that would have less zeros without marginalized voices, but “doesn’t have the budget” when asked to pay the same people for their work and their time. A lot of companies are doing this thing lately where they bring in a person of color or a person of unique gender experience and push them forward as to say “look how progressive we are”. These companies are very rarely invested in anything more than what “diversity” can do for the image of their company. Once they use all of their tokens, they go to the register and cash them out for a prize. In this scenarios the “prize” is that Buzzfeed can continue to publish Brittany, Gaby and Jenny’s content and still get the accolades for being progressive long after letting them go. This was a straw that broke the camel’s back for me. I can’t ignore this anymore and I’m writing this in hopes that people, like myself, will see these companies for what they are. Your story is marketable, your voice is important, their platform is tempting, but don’t bite. Do not doubt the power that you have to create your own media and do not think that websites like Buzzfeed are the only way you’ll ever be heard. We live in an amazing time where online video is how most people interact with news and entertainment. You can be your own boss and you can have your own voice without the fear of signing away your soul.

In 2014, when I filmed my first video for Buzzfeed, I was working on a Children’s Book as an illustrator. It was one of my first gigs and I put my heart and soul into it. This year, it’s finally being published and the dynamic has changed. Two years ago, I needed them; a big company with an established name and a reach further than mine. Today, I reach millions of people in the space of a week, travel the country speaking and have more job offers than I can honestly handle. Today I’m their asset, yesterday they were mine. The book will sell because people like me and appreciate my content, but I won’t see any residuals or further compensation because I didn’t know, at the time to ask for it. Do not doubt your power and your possibility. Don’t sacrifice your integrity for the vague promise of “exposure”. Exposure won’t pay your rent, feed you or pay your student loans back. “Exposure” will, however ensure that places like Buzzfeed make the maximum profit from your story.

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