Sep 12, 2013 · 3 minutes

Three weeks ago, an anti-abortion group called PersonhoodUSA published anti-Planned Parenthood propaganda piece on BuzzFeed’s “community” platform. BuzzFeed copped a lot of flak for doing so, and I criticized the company, saying it had to choose between being a platform and a publication.

Today, BuzzFeed issued new community guidelines, intended to make clear its policy around its “open platform,” to which any entity can post. The new rules are vague and won’t do anything to prevent future Personhood USA-type cases occuring.

In my post, I argued that in a time when media is more distributed than ever, when stories travel via social media and other means independent of the rest of the news organization’s “bundle,” brand trust and authenticity are vital. Any time the possibility arises that someone might confuse a legitimate BuzzFeed-produced story with a marketing message planted by a third party, public trust in that brand risks erosion. (BuzzFeed gets away with its sponsored content, which looks like standard posts but is more clearly labeled and branded. PersonhoodUSA, meanwhile, paid zero dollars for the privilege of the BuzzFeed assist.)

The new community guidlines, however, don’t touch on the “are we a platform or a publication?” problem. Instead, they apply only to ensuring good behavior. In other words, BuzzFeed still has a Medium problem. It is still trying to be both Twitter and the New York Times. The only difference is that it has now added some “don’t be an asshole” vaguery to its price of entry for the platform.

The new guidelines are summed up under eight headings (which I've paraphrased):

  1. No haters (avoid snark and vitriol)

  2. No trolling (don’t post extreme stuff just to get a reaction)

  3. No feeding the trolls (ignore the people who do the above)

  4. No personal attacks

  5. Don’t post spam

  6. Don’t post porn

  7. Don’t plagiarize

  8. Don’t be a jerk (called “that guy,” in BuzzFeed parlance)

These rules indicate that BuzzFeed is still going to take a hands-off approach to its community section, except when it comes to promoting specific contributions. That means it is effectively doubling down on the the idea that it isn’t responsible for everything posted under its name. As long as they're polite, groups such as the Heritage Foundation, and PersonhoodUSA can thus continue to avail themselves of the following BuzzFeed services for free:

  • The first-glance credibility-boost of the BuzzFeed banner

  • The BuzzFeed design template

  • The website’s search-engine optimization

  • A comments well that places them at the center of a media “dialogue”

  • Physical proximity to other BuzzFeed stories, advertised in the site’s right rail, giving readers the sense that the freebie posts deserve equal treatment

  • The potential for influential people such as Senator Ted Cruz to mistake propaganda for actual journalism, consequently amplifying the misconception to a wider audience

BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith told PaidContent’s Jeff Roberts that he thinks people are smart enough to tell the difference between the community content and the content produced by the site’s reporters.

“I think anyone who thinks that all these different kinds of contents can, or are, being separated aren’t looking at Facebook or Twitter,” Smith said. “If you think readers can’t deal with that, where are you? It’s not the future. It’s the present.”

If you’re a media nerd who pays attention to everything that goes on in new media, you’ll know that the BuzzFeed community should be considered separately to BuzzFeed’s staff-produced news and listicles. But it’s not obvious to everyone else, especially people coming across BuzzFeed for the first time. If you had never heard of BuzzFeed until three weeks ago and the PersonhoodUSA piece was the first thing you saw under the brand’s banner, what would be your impression of Smith’s site?

I spend plenty of time on Facebook and Twitter, and I obsess enough over this stuff to know the difference between a platform and a publication. But it’s easy to forget that people like me, in this case, are the minority. There are many more people like Sen. Cruz to whom a minor design wrinkle or small-type disclaimer are easily glossed over. To those people, a patina of legitimacy is enough. And that’s exactly what BuzzFeed’s open platform provides.