Pando

This viral click whore left Gawker to join a tech company. You will believe what happened next

By David Holmes , written on January 14, 2015

From The News Desk

The king of clickbait has fallen.

Capital New York reports that Neetzan Zimmerman, who was Gawker's chief aggregator before becoming editor-in-chief at Whisper, has left the anonymous messaging service. Zimmerman had previously been suspended following a Guardian investigation accusing the company of tracking users despite promises of anonymity.

I doubt this will be the end of Zimmerman's work in publishing or technology. But it does mark the end of a career arc that took him from a basement blogger, to an essential fixture at a major media company, to editor-in-chief at one of the hottest and most well-funded tech companies in the country, to being -- for the moment at least -- jobless.

To many, Zimmerman had become a symbol for everything wrong with publishing in the Internet era. Zimmerman was not a reporter or a "journalist" in even the loosest terms. His job was to scour the Internet for stories with viral potential -- like "This Pizza Has a Crust Made Out of Cheeseburgers" and "Dead And Buried Hamster Emerges From Grave Alive And Well And Hungry For Brains" -- before conjuring an irresistibly clickable headline. It may sound easy, but Zimmerman was better at it than anybody on the planet. In a given month, it was not unusual for him to bring in more pageviews than the rest of the Gawker staff combined.

"For me to be plugged into this stuff is like being plugged into the foundation of man," Zimmerman once told the Wall Street Journal, apparently without irony.

It's hard to tell, however, how much he bought into his own bullshit. Last summer, Zimmerman figured prominently in a Daily Show segment about how traditional journalism has given way to viral clickbait. He spouted off some pretty telling comments like, “Nowadays it’s not important if a story’s real, the only thing that really matters is whether people click on it," and “If a person is not sharing a news story, it is, at its core, not news.”

The Daily Show is a comedy series of course, and so Zimmerman perhaps intended these quotes to be satirical. But even if we assume the best of intentions, there's no separation between the man who aggregated stories all day long for Gawker and the man he supposedly "satirized" for Jon Stewart.

At the beginning of 2014, Zimmerman took a leap many journalists have taken in recent years, leaving a news organization for a well-funded tech company. As for why an anonymous messaging app would need a editorial staff, Whisper's plan was to partner with news organizations like Buzzfeed and Fusion to unearth newsworthy Whispers and feature them in those outlets' content channels.

As a de facto proof-of-concept, Zimmerman shared an anonymous, unsourced Whisper (which he called a "scoop") that Gwyneth Paltrow was cheating on her husband Chris Martin. The Whisper post was the only evidence of the claim, which Paltrow later denied. But that didn't stop Buzzfeed and other outlets from presenting the information as news, though Buzzfeed was careful to call the report a "rumor" not a "scoop." Hilariously, the subheader for the story was, "Anything is possible?"

Again, the facade of satire propping up his "Nowadays it’s not important if a story’s real," quote begins to rot when Zimmerman behaves with such blatant disregard for facts.

Zimmerman's lack of commitment to the truth became more problematic as an employee of Whisper than it ever did at a news site. After the Guardian published its report that Whisper had tracked users, Zimmerman provided a series of unequivocal denials on Twitter, calling the allegations "a pack of vicious lies," even as evidence mounted to the contrary.

Here on Pando, Paul Carr wrote:

If, as seems infinitely more likely, the Guardian’s reporting is accurate and Zimmerman either knowingly misled Whisper’s users or didn’t bother to check his facts before threatening reporters then his position at the company is absolutely untenable. He needs to resign, or Heyward needs to fire him.
Eventually, Whisper CEO Michael Heyward did suspend Zimmerman, writing, "Neetzan’s reaction to the Guardian’s allegations has taken away from the substance of the issue, which is that much of the Guardian’s reporting on this issue has been highly misleading or just plain wrong." In other words, there was some truth to the Guardian's report, making Zimmerman's embarrassingly confident denouncement of the story ring false.

If there are any lessons to take from Zimmerman's rise and fall, it's that the truth matters -- especially when you have investors and Congresspeople to answer to, not just readers who perhaps have become far too forgiving when it comes to falsehoods. Furthermore, it provides a lesson about the dangers of leaving publishing for a big startup salary. A writer always has an editor to fall back on, but when millions in venture capital are on the line, a CEO won't think twice about abandoning a staffer, deservedly or not.

At the end of that Wall Street Journal article, Zimmerman asks, "Once Internet culture eats itself, will I be able to do my job? When speaking truth to Internet culture doesn't result in traffic… when that happens, I may lose my edge and I'll have to find something else to do."

But Zimmerman's downfall wasn't because the Internet stopped believing him. "Truth" to the Internet masses and "truth" to a VC or Congressional committee are not the same thing. Maybe Zimmerman should have stuck to serving up the former.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]