Haasch: BuzzFeed’s Community is gross exploitation of content creators

The monetization of free content negatively impacts both creators and staff.

Palmer Haasch

Two weeks ago, BuzzFeed laid off approximately 15 percent of its staff in what was a devastating blow to digital media. The cuts, compounded with others at companies like Verizon Media, Grindr and Vice, sparked a conversation regarding the future of digital media. However, the incident also sparked discourse about BuzzFeed’s community model, which allows any user to create content using BuzzFeed’s content management system with the possibility of having their work featured or shared on BuzzFeed social channels.

University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts senior Dobbs DeCorsey is one of these community members. After one of his quizzes did particularly well on the site, he was added to the Community Facebook group, which serves as a forum for technical questions, ideation and support. It’s also the primary means through which BuzzFeed moderators connect with community members. Despite a thriving creator base, the rules are clear in the Community guidelines: “Community is not a place for you to make money.”

The above rule is specifically in reference to promotional content, but the wording stands out. Community is a place for BuzzFeed — not creators — to make money. Community members freely give content that is then monetized by BuzzFeed through advertisement placement. Even when quizzes or community content goes viral, which generates traffic and therefore revenue for BuzzFeed, creators are not compensated. “I did get paid in swag once,” DeCorsey said. “[BuzzFeed] sent a whole PR package of things along with a handwritten letter.”

While the community model provides an excellent opportunity for creators to flex their creative muscles, its implications are grave. After this latest round of layoffs, Matthew Perpetua, BuzzFeed’s former director of quizzes, explained his firing in a blog post: “A LOT of the site’s overall traffic comes from quizzes and a VERY large portion of that traffic comes from a constant flow of amateur quizzes made by community users.” Perpetua wrote this before going on to reveal the second-highest traffic driver worldwide for the site has been a teenage college student from Michigan (her name is Rachel McMahon). Why pay staff when there are plenty of people who are willing to create traffic driving content for free?

However, the negative implications of the model don’t mean that it wasn’t a meaningful experience. “After the layoffs the mood on the page was pretty somber,” DeCorsey said. “People were mostly confused. But the moderators that were laid off really did seem to care about building a community with community contributors.”

However, the bottom line is that content creators — especially those who produce monetized content — must be compensated. Not only is their lack of pay an issue, so are the implications on staff writers whose salaries become dead weight when companies are struggling to turn profits. There are better ways to encourage budding talent than through gross exploitation that comes at the expense of employees. Exposure, swag and recognition are not compensation — money is. BuzzFeed must reconsider its community model, and it can start doing so by paying writers for their content.