Aug 28, 2013 · 6 minutes

BuzzFeed ought to thank anti-abortion group Personhood USA, which has exposed a serious flaw in the upstart publication's system. With a BuzzFeedalicious listicle detailing why Planned Parenthood is the work of a promiscuous, condomless Satan, Personhood has provided a sterling example of why media companies must make a hard choice: Either be a platform or a publication, because you can't be both.

The "8 Outrageous Things Planned Parenthood Was Caught Doing" article appeared in BuzzFeed's "Community" section on Friday. Its series of preposterous claims stirred perfunctory outrage among liberal groups and compelled the publication to attach a note to the piece explaining: "Community posts are made by members of the community, and are not vetted or endorsed by BuzzFeed."

In a statement to NSFW Corp's Yasha Levine, BuzzFeed's Ashley McCollum explained the company's position:

We've been adjusting the labeling, and were in the process of figuring out where and whether we should draw lines about what's appropriate on what we conceived as an open platform, like Facebook and Twitter. It's an interesting, and complicated, question but we're inclined to leave the platform as open as possible.

Well, BuzzFeed, I have the answer to your interesting question, and it's not complicated at all: You have to decide whether you are a publication, with all of the editorial responsibilities that entails, or a platform, in which case you can get away with saying, "This horrible piece of fringe propaganda has nothing to do with us." You can't have it both ways.

To put it another way, you can't be both Twitter and the New York Times.

This is the same problem Medium has been grappling with in recent weeks. Medium provides a publishing tool for writers, who can post their work to the domain and benefit from the platform's powers of distribution. At the moment, Medium is open to writers on an invitation-only basis, but its standards for entry seem pretty loose. (I've published a post on Medium. Also, full disclosure, to help promote my ebook on Chinese Internet companies, I've written a piece for BuzzFeed, and was duly paid for it.) They are so loose, in fact, that some of the pieces on Medium that have garnered the most attention of late are ones that are doing so for negative reasons. There was, for instance, a post by a guy who saw fit to list his complaints about San Francisco, including that homeless people suck and the public transport system isn't as good as New York's. He was hounded by angry netizens, who objected to his tone. More recently, the Twitter mobs turned their ire towards a New York startup guy who wanted to teach a homeless man how to code.

Medium has not intervened in these cases based on the logic that it is a platform and isn't responsible for what its writers say. That's the argument the company made when it published and promoted a piece that initially suggested the police swooped in on an unsuspecting family man apparently because of the family's Google activity (it turned out to be more complicated than that). "We are a platform," came the inevitable tweet from the official Medium account. "Any changes to an article are up to the author."

At the same time, Medium commissions work from writers and promotes specific content. Senior editor Evan Hansen has said the company's editors also edit particular pieces they deem worthy of showcasing. (C.K. Sample III has written about the experience of having his post selected for such treatment.) In that sense, then, Medium is explicitly taking editorial responsibility for some of the work on its platform, while keeping its distance from other stuff.

That doesn't make sense.

These days, a media company's brand is more important than ever. In the cases of BuzzFeed and Medium especially, individual stories are frequently and easily dislocated from the context within which they were published. Both companies go to great lengths to distribute stories via social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. They don't care how people find stories published under their names, as long as they find them. The home page doesn't matter. The standalone story is more important than the "bundle."

Given that state of affairs, nothing could be more important than the media company's imprimatur and the vessel in which it carries content. However, the editor-free content on Medium looks just the same as the content that the company has commissioned, curated, and polished. Meanwhile, the Personhood USA post on BuzzFeed is barely discernible from its best political reporting, or the scintillating listicles that detail 27 signs you know you were raised by hamsters.

In a world in which stories travel on their own through the Internet, finding their way to readers through social chutes and ladders, how else is a media company to communicate its authority and quality if not through its logo, design, and the surrounding content? Those are the very things that constitute a "brand." A media company cannot afford to compromise that brand by letting it be infected by the oozing pus of the great unwashed.

The reasons BuzzFeed and Medium want to hold onto the "community"-driven aspects of their publications are obvious. By leveraging the power of the Internet and the network effects inherent in social media, they can turn cheap and easy content – stuff people give away – into serious traffic. If you could master that formula, you would possess not only the gravitas of a quality editorial product that advertisers would pay big bucks to be associated with, but you would also own a scalable platform that pretty much runs itself while potentially bringing huge numbers of people to your website.

To a business brain, this plan sounds genius. To an editorial brain, it's a nightmare.

Tumblr, with its Storyboad project, and Facebook, with its Stories project, have tried the same trick, just on the opposite side of the equation, attempting to be platforms that are also publications. Tumblr's experiment failed. Although it's still alive, Facebook's doesn't seem to be doing much better, as evidenced by managing editor Dan Fletcher's recent departure and subsequent comments about how platforms and publications don't mix.

For BuzzFeed and Medium, this is not merely a case of trying to have your cake and eat it. It's a case of asking someone to make the cake for you, bring it to you on a gilded plate, then eating it but refusing to do the dishes.

In its statements to the press, BuzzFeed has been characterizing the question surrounding its "Community" platform as a hard one to solve. In a response to my previous piece about Medium's attempt to cross the platform-publication divide, senior editor Hansen said it's an experiment and that it's "premature to say exactly where all the lines need to be drawn."

Both responses require much better editing.

The only reason the questions are "complicated" is because BuzzFeed and Medium are willing them to be. The problem they are grappling with is not new. Newspapers and magazines have never had an "open platform" component to their products. In part, that's because they have been handicapped by the medium – it's not like readers can stick their own unedited articles onto an already-printed newspaper page – but it's also because publishers have long recognized the importance of protecting editorial integrity, and in moderating content so that it does not undermine the work being done by their own reporters and editors. Even old-school Letters to the Editor are edited or filtered for quality.

This problem only feels new because the digital environment allows for greater scale – an article can now reach a global audience within a matter of minutes – and because the rewards of that scale are potentially so much richer. At the same time, however, trust in your editorial brand can be eroded that much quicker, and with devastating effect. One minute, you're a happy community hosting cute videos of Ninja shawarma chefs, the next you're a dumb outlet for shrewd media manipulators who delightedly use your brand and publishing tools to peddle corrosive materials.

BuzzFeed and Medium both have to make their minds up: Platform or publication?

Pick one.

[Image Credit: snigl3t on Flickr]