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How the rivalry between Gawker and BuzzFeed drove a social media boom – and bust

By Tim Adams

07 May 2023 · 10 min read

Editor's Note

Ben Smith was BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief when it was at its peak. He explains in the Guardian how the groundbreaking site and its rivals changed the media–and sowed the seeds for their own demise

In any technological advance there is a golden age in which, for pioneers and believers, remaking the world seems within their grasp. For social media, that moment was just over 20 years ago, when to digital evangelists it felt like a new generation of “citizen journalists” – bloggers – might create a connected utopia of transparency, sweeping away those crusty media “gatekeepers” who had – the theory went – so long kept us all in the dark. This imagined paradise was a place in which no one had yet heard of cat memes and dick pics and Andrew Tate; where anti-vaxxers and anonymous “patriots” still just wrote furious letters to editors in green ink in their bedsits; where likes and follows and trolls and gifs and pile-ons were not yet the stuff of life.

Ben Smith was in his mid-20s when the first wave of that revolution was breaking – “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!” – making his way as a political journalist in Washington and feeling the media landscape shift beneath his feet. Having been political blogger at the website Politico in the early days of that turmoil, he launched the newsroom of BuzzFeed in 2011 and established it as a credible and groundbreaking source of internet-only news, before leaving in 2020 to take up a role as media columnist of the New York Times. In April, having gone through successive waves of cuts and redundancies, BuzzFeed finally shut down its news operation. It felt like the end of an era.

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