BuzzFeed wants to forget the past, but is denying that privilege to its writers

Did you know Barbra Streisand lives in Malibu?
Did you know Barbra Streisand lives in Malibu?
Image: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni
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In 2013, Amy Rose Spiegel wrote a piece for BuzzFeed titled, ”What’s the Deal With Jazz?” It was a trademark listicle featuring gems such as “Jazz guys account for, like, 74% of all fedora wearers, which basically makes them criminals in the rest of the world’s eyes.” The story was widely ridiculed. But at some point, the story disappeared.

Slate noticed it was gone, and upon inquiry, it turned out that Spiegel had gotten rid of it herself. “I deleted it because I was deeply embarrassed by it,” Spiegel told Slate. “It’s an embarrassing thing to have written.” She was 22, new to journalism, and says she was pushed by her editor into writing the post. The piece is now back online and has an editor’s note about its removal—not to mention several articles like this one pointing to it.

BuzzFeed’s decision to reinstate Spiegel’s article comes as BuzzFeed, which recently raised $50 million, is in the process of erasing its own past. Gawker noticed that more than 4,000 posts have been deleted from the site. Founder and CEO Jonah Peretti told Slate that the posts were all before December 2011, when Ben Smith left Politico to become the editor in chief and when it became a serious media company. “If you look at that era of BuzzFeed through the lens of newspaper or magazine journalism, you would say [deleting those posts] was a strange decision,” he said. “We just didn’t and don’t look at that period of BuzzFeed as being a journalistic enterprise.”

But what about Amy Rose Spiegel and her jazz story? Is she obliged to have something she’s ashamed of appear in Google searches for the rest of her life? How to cope with an an almost infinite access to information is one of the questions of our age. You can see why ephemeral and anonymized messaging services such as Snapchat and Secret are growing rapidly. Social norms are shifting rapidly. What both Spiegel and BuzzFeed are asking for, in essence, is the chance to be forgotten. That’s something the European Court of Justice said in May was a right, allowing citizens of the 28 countries of the European Union to request that Google take searches out of their results. There have been thousands of requests since the rulings, mostly over matters of privacy and defamation. The law has some pretty obvious flaws, but it is at least a starting point to standardizing how we look at the concept of permanence on the web.

And, as both Spiegel and BuzzFeed found out, the internet doesn’t easily let people forget. They were victims of the Streisand Effect, when trying to hide something inadvertently draws more attention to the thing in question. It was named after Barbra Streisand, who sued a photographer taking pictures of the California coastline, including one with her home in Malibu. The image was downloaded six times before she sued—and 420,000 times in the month after.  As hard as it is to forget the past, it is even harder now to do it without being noticed.