The Bro Whisperer of Bustle Was Doomed to Fail. He Didn’t. What’s His Secret?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Aug. 21 2014 5:40 PM

The Bro Whisperer of Bustle

Bryan Goldberg’s site for women was doomed from the start. One year later, it’s hugely successful. What’s his secret?

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Consider Bustle’s coverage of Baby Groot, a very cute character who appeared for a very brief moment in the summer blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy. Bustle kicked off its coverage with a post featuring GIFs of Baby Groot. Then, it published a post that placed GIFs of Baby Groot alongside a video of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” one that placed GIFs of Baby Groot alongside clips of other anthropomorphized fictional trees, one that placed GIFS of Baby Groot alongside GIFs of dancing celebrities, one that placed GIFs of Baby Groot alongside GIFs of cats, and one that placed GIFs of Baby Groot alongside GIFs of baby animals. (Slate too got in on the Baby Groot fun, but only once.) Bustle’s revolutionary approach is to target women who like Baby Groot but also a cat in a massage chair, Baby Groot but also Rihanna, Baby Groot but also Joe Jonas, Baby Groot but also the tree from Harry Potter, Baby Groot but also Emma Stone, and Baby Groot but also a two-legged piglet. I like a Baby Groot GIF as much as the next woman, but the GIF does not change; the URL does.

Another favorite Bustle approach is to take one news peg and publish contradictory opinions on the same event. After a rumor hit this week that Jennifer Lawrence was dating Gwyneth Paltrow’s estranged husband Chris Martin, Bustle published a piece titled “Jennifer Lawrence & Gwyneth Paltrow Are Total Opposites,” and then, three days later: “Let’s Not Compare J Law and Gwyneth Paltrow.” The site has published an article to bury Kim Kardashian’s video game and one to praise it. Taylor Swift’s new single, “Shake It Off,” is either a glaring bit of cultural appropriation or a slightly problematic parody of her peers or a boldly experimental departure from her country roots or a love letter to her fans. Twenty-four hours after Swift dropped the single on Monday, Bustle had published 11 different pieces parsing the song and video, plus six more Swift-related news items, all appealing to slightly different segments of her audience.

Screengrab courtesy of Bustle

Courtesy of Bustle

Bustle’s sheer volume means that it can encompass perspectives that leaner publications don’t (Kat Haché covers trans issues in pop culture that many women’s sites ignore), and it casts a wide enough contributors net that it occasionally alights on a powerful personal essay (like Vaidehi Joshi’s account of being blamed by Indian police after she was stabbed and sexually assaulted in Mumbai). But paging through the site, these highlights get buried under hundreds of quick, thin takes competing to gain traction in search engines or go viral on Facebook. Churning out a sufficient volume of copy requires “scraping the bottom of the barrel,” one former writer told me. “It’s all, ‘Can we find a new angle on this?’ Sometimes you just can’t. There just aren’t that many things to say about a Kardashian Instagram. You learn to use filler words.”

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“Our mission is about voices,” Goldberg wrote on PandoDaily shortly after the site’s launch. Bustle’s aim is to “find great voices who have yet to achieve mainstream recognition. After we find these talented writers, we will work closely with them, pay them, and encourage them to write what they want to write.” It doesn’t always play out that way. When one intern’s summer stint at Bustle ended, “I might have considered staying out of desperation,” she told me. “But by the end of my time there, I was extremely frustrated.” Her posts were “frequently edited to be less critical,” she says. Sometimes, posts were edited “so much that the opinion [they] originally expressed was totally changed.” One piece criticizing a pop star was molded to express support; a negative review of a new television show was rejected so the site could stay “positive on fall TV.” One former contributor said that a common critique of her work was: “Can we be objective?” and “Can you balance it?” Meanwhile, “Thanks, this was very balanced!” constituted high praise.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with balance, and every intern opinion is not necessarily worthy of publication. But the stories I heard from various contributors do not seem to jibe with Goldberg’s stated mission of finally giving overlooked young writers the chance to speak their minds. Ward and Wheeler Johnson contest that, however. They told me that while the site’s news reports often strive for careful balance, positivity is, as Ward put it, “absolutely not” a mandate for the site. “We encourage our writers to come to the table with their own experiences and opinions,” she said. One of the pieces the site published about Swift’s new song, they noted, called out the video for its queasy images of black women’s bodies. (Actually, it’s the second piece the site has published on the subject.)

Bustle pieces—the ones with voice (but also objectivity), passion (but also balance)—can present the illusion that the site’s women don’t think much about anything at all. In many Bustle stories, any whiff of judgment is quickly extinguished with an ameliorating gloss. Take “Women Are Better at Marathon Running, Says New Study. Sort Of,” which covers an academic study on how men and women pace themselves differently in endurance races. The post’s author posits that “men are at both a mental and physical disadvantage when it comes to marathons,” before erasing any semblance of a stance with a parenthetical: “(I’m just kidding guys, but now you know what it feels like to have people say that sort of nonsense.)” After Katy Perry posted an Instagram video of her nose piercing, Bustle floated a vaguely controversial claim: “Although she does yell ‘ow’ during the process, her reaction was a bit delayed and makes me wonder if the drama was just for the video.” Then the chaser: “Then again, she had a giant needle sticking through her nose, so I wouldn’t doubt it if her response was genuine either.” I wondered if I had an opinion, but on second thought, maybe I don’t.

Of course, underestimating Bryan Goldberg is rarely a smart bet. Over the past few months, Bustle has carved out a niche publishing riotous first-person essays that take the form of feminist stunts—standouts include a writer who deflated the artifice of her Instagram feed, another who gave her boyfriend a blow job with the aid of a grapefruit slice, and one who rode the subway with her legs spread to spoof men who take up too much space on public transportation. These stories signal an amped-up investment in Bustle’s content: They are lively, passionate, and, crucially, popular. Perhaps they provide a shimmering glimpse at what Bustle can be after it seals its dominance of women’s publishing and cinches its big payday. After Turner bought Bleacher Report, it staffed up with established sports writers from places like CBS and the New York Times; BuzzFeed is investing in established journalists while quietly scrubbing the site of thousands of subpar posts from its days as a freewheeling community platform. Who knows? Maybe we’ll all be clamoring to work for Bustle next year, and actually get paid to do it.

In the meantime, here’s my Bustle take on Bustle: Bryan Goldberg is creating paying jobs for female writers who would otherwise be toiling without an outlet or a paycheck. On the other hand, the paychecks are borderline criminal. Still, they’re better than nothing. But then again, the writers are awarded for creating content that promotes the idea that women aren’t very interesting. In the end, though, millions of women have found it interesting enough to click.