How do you make millennials care about boring labor issues? Turn it into a meme!

“Why I left BuzzFeed” has emerged over the last nine-ish months as a topic of conversation among video creators on YouTube, with videos from popular personalities amassing millions of views and sparking some debate. And as YouTube conversations go, this one is actually pretty important. 

The topic centers around video creators who once worked for BuzzFeed and who have since left the company. They have issues — some of them have to do with BuzzFeed, some with the opportunities they see ahead. Spoiler alert: They don’t spend much time hurling salacious allegations or alleging mistreatment. 

What the topic lacks in drama it makes up for in depth. At its core, the problems these creators are confronting touch on some of the most important questions of labor and employment in the digital age. The creators themselves have put forward nuanced views of the difficult tradeoffs for modern creatives — and racked up millions of views doing so. 

Recently, the topic is even spilling out beyond YouTube.

The first big video I could find that seemed to fit the pattern comes from Kenny Moffitt in August 2016 and has more than 5 million views. 

Moffitt’s video is a pretty classic vlog, with him talking straight to camera. He notes that BuzzFeed was making a ton of videos, and he was focusing on making hits for them. Meanwhile, he wanted to work on his own videos, something that’s not entirely allowed at BuzzFeed.

“At the same time, I started to feel like there wasn’t necessarily a path for me at BuzzFeed, and part of that was because it was unclear what a path might look like, how to grow as a creator,” he said.

Fair enough. Moffitt doesn’t seem terribly unhappy with BuzzFeed, instead focusing on how the company’s priorities and his priorities were very different. So he left. 

Moffitt’s video came at a time when BuzzFeed had also laid off some creators, sending a slight ripple through the vlogging community. 

The video was a hit, which on YouTube means that there’s going to be knockoffs and responses. Moffitt’s hit video quickly spawned other videos about his video, as well as other former BuzzFeed video creators. Jonah Feingold released one about his experiences getting a job at BuzzFeed and then leaving. So did Jenny Lorenzo and Stephanie Frosch.

Most creators tend to lay out a similar situation to the one Moffitt presented. Frosch’s was among the more critical, saying that employee morale was low due to layoffs and changing priorities. Frosch claimed that she had been recruited to provide an LGBTQ+ perspective, but was then shifted to comedy. 

Then, comedy duo Allison and Gaby from “Just Between Us” created a “Why I Left BuzzFeed” video for vlogbrothers, the YouTube channel of John and Hank Green, two of the biggest stars on the platform. 

Their video hits on many of the points mentioned above, particularly the worry that creators working at BuzzFeed are giving up the rights to anything they create. They’re not going after BuzzFeed, just laying out how these things work.

This all happened in the span of a few months. At this point, “Why I left BuzzFeed” was a full-on YouTube meme. Creators with smaller channels had begun to jump on the topic as a way to attract viewers, with some even pointing at the practice while also embracing it.

Looking at the chronological list of “Why I Left BuzzFeed” videos, there’s plenty of videos during this time and shortly after primarily made by smaller channels. But none of them seem to actually address the issues or be from ex-BuzzFeed staff. 

That’s until March when Safiya Nygaard made a video. Nygaard has more than 1.7 million subscribers on YouTube, and was formerly a BuzzFeed video producer. 

Nygaard’s explanation for leaving BuzzFeed is very similar to the previous videos — a desire for independence.

The video was a hit and kicked off a fresh round of other video creators using the topic for attention. 

Even more recently, the meme got another infusion from Chris Reinacher and Candace Lowry.

The topic has even reached beyond the YouTube crowd. “Why I left BuzzFeed” has been pointed to as an example of entitled millennials by more than one right-leaning publication (The Observer and HeatStreet). Earlier this week, the phrase hit KnowYourMeme.com, and BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti tweeted out a parody “Why I left BuzzFeed” video (from a creator who had worked with BuzzFeed before). 

The critiques linked above aren’t entirely unreasonable. There’s an undeniable eyeroll factor to young people talking about why they left the kinds of jobs that most people dream about. Not feeling enough creative freedom at your digital media job is the kind of first-world problems joke you might hear on “The Great Indoors.” 

But if you watch those videos and listen to the critiques, an important issue emerges. For what these people have trained to do, for what they want to do with their talents, the current model is difficult to square with traditional corporatism. That might be particularly true of YouTube video creators, but it’s an issue that rings true at least in part for major parts of the U.S. economy.

The central issue here has been discussed since the early days of the internet. Nearly zero-cost distribution means the old media models have changed dramatically. Whereas a platform with reach like BuzzFeed would have been an incredible advantage to someone trying to create videos back in the 1980s, it’s maybe only marginally better for creators who have already grown a fan base on YouTube. 

Each of the creators above walks through how they weighed the opportunities and detriments of working at BuzzFeed. At the end, they all came to similar conclusions based on the issues of giving up the rights to their work and the limited creative opportunities. They had other gripes, sure, but at the end these were rational decisions. For what they are trying to do, BuzzFeed — or or most any other company for that matter — doesn’t make sense for them.

That might come off as entitlement, but it’s a business decision that highlights how the internet is shifting how labor markets work. Creators who have the opportunity to build a sizable audience and still own their work can’t ignore that kind of upside. They don’t need companies like BuzzFeed the way that people with similar talents needed companies like NBC. 

This kind of internet-enabled change isn’t always one way. Whereas companies for some might seem less important, for others, they’re greater. The rise of ride hailing apps means that drivers have less power over their jobs than they did before. BuzzFeed might be less powerful than NBC, but Uber is far more powerful than whatever local cab company exists where you live. 

That’s why the “Why I left BuzzFeed” discussion is generally a positive development. These video creators are certainly capitalizing on the topic for attention, but they are doing so in a way that broaches an important topic among their many thousands of fans. That’s no easy feat. 

Now, please stay tuned for my next video: “Why I’m staying at Mashable.”



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