Internet Histories | 30 September
Quantity, Quality, and writing for the web
Readers who saw Stuff Nation as an inherently bad and ridiculous idea that was always doomed to failure should check themselves by taking note of the Bryan Goldberg story. At the age of 24, Goldberg and a few friends started Bleacher Report.
The premise was simple – you want to be a #1 go-to hegemonic force covering half a dozen codes and hundreds of teams in the US sporting leagues, but you’re not ESPN or Sports Illustrated and you’ve got neither the cache or resource of either. So you post ads on sport forums and Craigslist looking for superfans-turned-sportswriters. You can’t pay the writers, but you give them a reward system of points and medals, fostering their acquisitive streak. You make sure that this army are covering not just every game, but every possible takeaway from every game - “the Heat have peaked, the Heat just keep getting better –“ – with some user-gathered pictures of T&A for good measure. It doesn’t matter whether any of this content is particularly good – you’re everywhere, the first page of Google results in any permutation of the week in sport. By the time you sell up to Turner Broadcasting, you’re raking in tens of millions of dollars in ad revenue a year.
Do it right, and having hundreds of people write poorly for you on the Internet for free on a daily basis is super-lucrative (contra Stuff you probably shouldn’t take your existing site and turn it into a Bleacher Report for people who have had a gutsful about the film adaptations of The Hunger Games). But Goldberg, an ambitious Silicon Valley manchild who could have stepped out of a Judd Apatow flick, is hot property – to the point that when he decided to start a lifestyle omni-website for women, the investors still came running.
Lizzy Widdicombe’s New Yorker piece on Goldberg and bustle.com (professional and ambitious young men ‘hustle’, therefore professional and ambitious young women ‘bustle’, so the etymology goes) is admirably restrained. Most business wisdom suggests Bustle will do very well, and gloating in its surefire failure is probably exactly what Goldberg, a Cali tech-upstart, would expect a storied and stoic publication on the East Coast to do. So Widdicombe doesn’t. But the highlights are dripping with pitch humour:
“Goldberg had been pitching in with his own editorial research, by talking to “hundreds and hundreds” of young women. He’d talk to anyone: “Friends. Friends of friends. I’m not shy. I’m not afraid to talk to the girl who’s working behind the counter at a salon. I’m not afraid to talk to the hostess at the restaurant. I would ask women at bars, ‘What Web sites do you read?’ ”
When Goldberg talks about his entry into women’s publishing, he can bring to mind an episode of “The Simpsons,” in which Homer, discovering that bacon, ham, and pork chops all come from pigs, calls them a “wonderful, magical animal…
…This was followed by a Q. & A. with himself, in which he argued with imagined skeptics—“Is this a feminist publication? You’re damn right this is a feminist publication.” At one point, he touted Bustle’s news coverage again, writing, “Yes, we believe that a partner-track attorney can be passionate about world affairs and celebrity gossip. On the same day. During the same coffee break. And there is nothing wrong with that. Welcome to the year 2013.”
It’s a great, judicious profile. What do I think of Bustle? It is what it is – I’m almost certainly going to end up coming across some of this links again and brainlessly clicking on them the way I engage with Buzzfeed, Gawker, Upworthy, etc. But they’re all primarily aggregators, paraphrasers – processors that turn the headline “Global warming is unequivocal, the slowdown is not a trend: IPCC” to “Humans Officially Blamed For Climate Change (Duh)”.
Goldberg’s plan to have Bustle’s staff producing one thousand articles a day gives me the willies too – because there’s not enough happening, anywhere, for one tailored demographic site to try and do this, and simply because it feels like a final and co-ordinated triumph of quantity over quality. Worst of all, I imagine some amazing young talent coming in and getting paid fifty bucks to pour his and her heart out – to inadvertently write something perfectly-formed and extraordinary, because whatever their talents they don’t get how this works – and for it to vanish in the torrent, forever unseen.
Final, possibly strained analogy – personal original web content in any stripe started as this strange little cottage industry (so for every Bleacher Report, you had a thousand little things all over the landscape like our very own Deadball, may it rest in peace) – and we’re now seeing the countryside dwindle, and a mass migration to the cities. Under this scenario Buzzfeed, Bustle, Upworthy, The Chive and others are the Victorian workhouses – distinguished mainly, if it all, by the differing philanthropic intents of their wealthy industrialists. (In passing – we still have the actual Victorian workhouse model co-existing alongside this and making things, but white people don’t work in them anymore).
PS: Auckland’s Trust Punks are still one of the most exciting guitar bands coming up through the city at the moment. Here’s their single, released just this weekend been: ‘Prone Hold’.