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McGrath ’24: The “Why I Left Buzzfeed” phenomenon and the broken promise of for-profit activism

“Buzzfeed, at the end of the day, is a company,” former Buzzfeed Video Producer Steph Frosch told her audience in a 2016 YouTube video. “And just like any other company, they don’t always put moral values first. They put getting money first.” 


Frosch is one of over a dozen ex-Buzzfeed employees that has posted a “Why I Left Buzzfeed” video to YouTube over the past five years. Many of these ex-Buzzfeed stars, including Safiya Nygaard (9.2 million subscribers), the Try Guys (7.7 million subscribers), Michelle Khare (2.4 million subscribers), Kelsey Impicciche (674k subscribers), Just Between Us (671k subscribers) and The Kitchen and Jorn Show (495k subscribers), who each published their own farewells, have since found incredible success as independent creators. 


These ex-Buzzfeed producers paint a less than flattering image of their former employer, asserting that the company not only failed to provide basic job security, but that higher-ups fostered a distinctively toxic corporate culture. This makes Buzzfeed the latest addition to a long list of seemingly liberal-leaning companies that have been accused of poor labor practices. Sophia Amoruso, originator of the term #GirlBoss, has been accused of fostering a culture of bullying and harassment at her fashion company Nasty Gal, and former Thinx CEO Miki Agrawal was accused of sexually harrassing her employees despite branding herself as a feminist icon. 


What makes Buzzfeed and the rest of these companies remarkable is not necessarily their particular cruelty — there are certainly worse corporations out there — but rather their distinctive fall from grace. Buzzfeed, with its uniquely millennial corporate culture, imagined a world where social justice was profitable. However, as the “Why I Left Buzzfeed” trend demonstrates, workers and activism alike tend to quickly become pawns in a much larger contest for financial and social capital. Despite admirable intentions, any “woke” corporation such as Buzzfeed that relies on activism to draw revenue can never actually live up to the progressive values it claims to hold.  


Having come of age on the Internet like the rest of Gen Z, much of my early adolescence was spent idolizing the very same group of Buzzfeed Video creators that would later leave the company in droves. As I watched, learning terms like “patriarchy” and “rape culture,” I was finally being given language to describe the injustices I could sense in the world around me. I was utterly convinced by Buzzfeed’s progressive branding and its promise of a future where social justice gains could be achieved through a series of five-minute videos. Soon enough, I was telling my friends and family that I wanted to work at Buzzfeed. 


My Buzzfeed obsession was synonymous with a growing infatuation that I had with millennial office culture more generally. Complete with Sweetgreen salads, standing desks and “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun(damental rights)” graphic tees, a career at Buzzfeed or any other liberal-leaning corporation promised the ability to work on a truly meaningful project — whether that be feminism or another form of social justice advocacy — without sacrificing the SoulCycle rides, custom coffee mugs or green juices. In fact, those material emblems of success wouldn’t just be perks of a bustling career, but were inherently virtuous. After all, according to the #GirlBoss theory of politics, the financial and professional success of any woman is in itself a contribution to the feminist cause. 


This theory of social justice is hollow. In terms of feminism specifically, while women certainly do face discrimination in the workplace — and adequate representation will likely be key to mitigating these challenges — simply appointing mostly white and privileged women to positions of authority within existing male power structures fails to address the underlying inequalities these systems perpetuate. From a lack of access to affordable child care to Texas’s most recent draconian abortion ban, the injustices American women face demand systemic and intersectional policy solutions that simply hoisting a few female CEOs into the top 1% can’t deliver. In a similar way, Buzzfeed videos like “We Painted With Our Period Blood” or a pair of $34 Thinx leak-proof period underwear may theoretically be empowering to a small subset of well-to-do women, but do little to aid the millions of homeless women who are forced to go without sanitary products every month.  


This type of woke-washing extends far beyond the rise of #GirlBoss. Whether it be posting statements in support of Black Lives Matter or selling LGBTQ+ pride merchandise for profit, corporate America routinely co-opts the language of activism to appeal to liberal consumers while only paying lip service to corporate social responsibility. Buzzfeed, with its simultaneous liberal branding and less than pristine labor practices, has mastered these hollow marketing tactics. Just as #GirlBoss feminism prioritizes the performance of activism at the expense of actual equality, Buzzfeed used the aesthetics of diversity and “wokeness” to build their online dynasty at the direct expense of their workers. 


Ultimately, when social justice is being bought and sold, it will inevitably mold itself to corporate financial incentives rather than the needs of those it’s claiming to serve. In order to move toward true political and social equality, we should look beyond these hollow displays of corporate benevolence and recognize the social, political and economic realities these businesses are actually cultivating for their workers and consumers alike.


Sarah McGrath ’24 can be reached at sarah_v_mcgrath@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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