The twenties have been wild for the Internet. Titanic companies like Facebook and Twitter have gone through major changes. Millions have been laid off, and in the past month alone, two popular online journalism portals, Buzzfeed and Vice News, trimmed their operations with the former completely shutting down. Is the Internet, as we know it, dead? In his new book, Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral, Ben Smith chronicles Internet news and media through the prism of online traffic.
Defining such traffic today is relatively easy; terms like “engagement mining” and “metrics” have become ubiquitous. Influencers build their brand on the basis that they can drive at least X amount of traffic to themselves on a given day. But for the sake of the unacquainted, “traffic” can be defined as the flow of data within an Internet territory. It’s what tells us how popular a thing on the Internet is among its people. In simple words, traffic measures attention, allowing us to monetize. Thus traffic isn’t merely the mechanics, it signals what the audience wants. Smith argues it’s human.
But traffic wasn’t always a commonly understood concept. Smith offers a densely populated history beginning in 2001 with Jonah Peretti, Buzzfeed’s owner and one of our protagonists, placing a bet that he could control the Internet. Smith spends the rest of the book demonstrating the foolishness of Peretti’s ambition. He tells us that like anything human, traffic is shaped by social forces. In other words, simply because traffic tells us what people want, it doesn’t necessarily mean traffic is benign or democratic. It’s wild, uncontrollable, and yet shaped by power more than it is by the technological medium that holds it. With a huge cast of characters including human and non-human entities such as Gawker’s Nick Denton, Arianna Huffington, Facebook, DRUDGE REPORT, and Blogdex, Traffic is the Vanity Fair of the digital era. It’s a tale of caution about the pervasiveness of self-delusion; and the human condition of being ruined by our own selves.
One of the key storylines in the book is the similarities between the rise of Obama and that of Trump. Smith argues the digital movements that propelled them were both rooted in methods that saw political leaders as people with the potential to draw gigantic amounts of traffic. Both Obama and Trump won because they held people’s attention.
Ben Smith seems to position the Internet as neither good nor bad; but the Internet, like all technology, is not neutral. Politics driven by ‘icons’ share similarities beyond the ability to wield Internet traffic. The hyper-liberalism that atomises macro-level issues to an individual’s personality is a decay helmed not by the Internet alone, but by the capital that drives it. In Internet for the People, co-founder of Logic Magazine Ben Tarnoff argues the Internet is broken because it is owned by private firms and run for profit. Understanding how this made the modern Internet is essential for any movement that seeks to remake the Internet to succeed. Movements must know their enemy, Tarnoff concludes. Ben Smith shows us our enemies but he doesn’t exactly identify them as such. The book is littered with examples of capital choking the small guys, or at least influencing them. Nick Denton, the founder of the now dead gossip-site Gawker, and one of our other main characters, channels this spirit. Denton ran websites based on the principle that traffic is money. Smith’s narration is ambiguous toward him, describing Denton as a pioneer for implementing clearly exploitative labor practices such as piece-rate structure based on a number of page views. Weeks after finishing the book, I am unsure if this was sarcasm. Gawker Media LLC was ultimately shut down by another billionaire. The Internet has both mourned and enjoyed this conspiracy, but rarely acknowledged that an Internet driven by traffic and monetizable ideas is bound to be controlled by capital, and is never going to be of the people.
But Smith’s Traffic gets many things right, like its unflinching candor. Smith writes with a granularity that can only come with proximity. He shows how the downfall of Gawker and Buzzfeed (and their eventual but temporary return) looked like. Through Traffic, Smith demonstrates the Internet’s wildness, its humanity in being not only unpredictable, but also embedded in society and culture. How you can be the talk of the town one moment and then be on the outside looking in the next. Traffic may be a warning after the thing, but it’s not any less revelatory.
Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race To Go Viral
By Ben Smith
Published May 2, 2023