Nov 27, 2013 · 5 minutes

First, a quick story.

A woman writes a list called “The Ultimate Unique Gift Guide For Guys.” She publishes it on BuzzFeed, using the publication’s Community platform and tools. The first item in the gift guide is a homemade gin kit, which happens to be a product made by a business the woman runs with her husband. The post gets 2,000 views.

Then the woman sends an email to BuzzFeed asking why it didn’t do more to promote the post. BuzzFeed selects what it deems to be the best community-contributed posts for special attention on the Community homepage.

A BuzzFeed “community engagement coordinator” writes back to the woman, saying “we do not promote anything that was created by a brand or a staff member from a brand unless we have a partnership with them.” It’s editorial policy, the engagement coordinator says. (PandoDaily has reviewed the email exchange to confirm this is what took place.)

Gift Guide Woman protests. But you promoted other posts from people who appear to be promoting their own brands, she says, like this one about how Kanye West called Zappos shit, which was written by the social media director for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which gets a link right there in the first paragraph. She notes two other examples where the authors link to their own websites.

And what did BuzzFeed mean by partnerships? “So, a partnership means a company pays you to feature their posts?,” Gift Guide Woman, whose name is Sarah Maiellano, asks.

Engagement Coordinator, Lili Salzberg, replies: “Linking back to a Journal or blog is not product placement that is intended for sale.” She doesn’t explain what she meant by partnerships.

Gift Guide Woman says that doesn’t make sense, because clicks on a newspaper’s website helps generate ad revenue, and a blog is a brand too. She posits that she could have just got a friend to publish the list, and BuzzFeed would be none the wiser. Engagement Coordinator replies saying, yeah, that’s true. BuzzFeed tries to vet people, but there’s room for error. She stresses that its policy is based on a brand with a product to sell. “It is part of our internal editorial policy which we do not have published publicly,” she writes.

Gift Guide Woman, still pissed, says BuzzFeed ought to rethink that policy and make it public.

Okay, that story wasn’t that quick. And on the face of it, it looks like a trivial confrontation between someone who is trying to game the system for financial gain and someone who is trying to be a reasonable gatekeeper. But it speaks to a much wider problem that BuzzFeed faces with its “open platform." (Note: Last night, I asked BuzzFeed for a comment in response to Gift Guide Woman's complaints. I’m still waiting for an on-the-record response. If it is forthcoming, I will post it here.)

For a start, BuzzFeed’s recently instituted Community Guidelines say nothing about not using the platform to promote your own business. That it has one editorial policy that is public and one that is not is just a basic failure of transparency. If you’re letting anyone publish content on your site, you have to be very clear to everyone about what the rules are.

In the past, BuzzFeed has said, “We’re inclined to leave the platform as open as possible.” That basically means “as few rules as possible.” More importantly, it means free rein for brands and interest groups who want to avail themselves of BuzzFeed’s publishing technology and design template to publish their marketing messages at a URL and under the BuzzFeed banner.

The reason I said “BuzzFeed” so many times in that last sentence is to draw attention to the fact that no matter how agnostic BuzzFeed attempts to be in regards to the type of content that is published in its Community section, it is intrinsically and irrevocably married to that content. In this particular case, it is acknowledging that it applies editorial discretion at least to what it promotes on the site, but not to what it is published under its masthead with its own tools.

The unconditional provision of those tools is an issue in its own right, but it’s an even bigger problem that readers might confuse community-contributed content with the stuff that is published and vetted by BuzzFeed staff. And yes, that happens a lot. Even Senator Ted Cruz, who is of questionable sanity but at least has a Harvard education and a passing knowledge of how the media works, has been duped by the lack of distinction.

The issue here is that if you’re running a publishing platform, you can’t tend towards openness. Either you're completely open, or you have strict guidelines and rules and then enforce them. Otherwise, you’re inevitably going to be an enabler of unpaid marketing messages and propaganda. Those messages will then be seen under your banner, and your brand has to wear that taint for as long as the piece remains visible on the Internet. Even if you throw your hands up and say “This is not produced by our staff,” you are still “endorsing” the content by letting people use your technology, your template, your design, and your home URL.

I understand that BuzzFeed is trying to do something new in blending the editorial power of a publication with the scalability of user-generated content. Experiments in media are good, especially as the digital landscape is still changing so rapidly, and the economics of the industry are mid-upheaval. And I agree with BuzzFeed that it should give short shrift to such posts as the Ultimate Unique Gift Guide for Guys, which are obviously just trying to shill their products.

But this experiment is not working, and it has the potential for harm – not just to the BuzzFeed brand, which gets tarnished when interest groups use its platform to promote their own ends, but also to people in general, who might be duped into thinking that the content from those interests groups is the work of balanced journalism. That might happen in only a small minority of cases, but that it happens more than zero times is a problem for everyone.

BuzzFeed’s editorial discretion in this particular case was right on the money. But it needs to apply that discretion more broadly to the platform, and not just to what content gets promoted. Even though BuzzFeed is a master of determining what content goes viral, viruses have a knack of finding their own way to spread. Today, it might be a post in which some person tries to sell a home-made gin set. Tomorrow, it could be an ugly, politically motivated attack on Planned Parenthood.

Oh wait, that already happened. The post has since disappeared from BuzzFeed.

[Image Credit: WikiMedia]