BuzzFeed harnessed the growing power of social media to turn it into a digital media business worth more than a billion dollars at its peak. But when the tech giants behind the social platforms backed away from publishing, BuzzFeed’s valuation tanked.
To recover, BuzzFeed once again turns to a new technology: artificial intelligence.
The company has tried a variety of experiments since announcing plans to incorporate AI a few months ago, embracing the technology more than most publishers. On Tuesday, BuzzFeed unveiled its most ambitious offering yet, a free chatbot called Botatouille (no relation to Pixar’s murine chef), offering recipe recommendations from Tasty, BuzzFeed’s food brand.
Botatouille is built using the technology that powers OpenAI’s popular ChatGPT program, customized with Tasty recipes and user data.
Rainy day? Botatouille recommends winter chili or lentil soup. You feel lonely? Botatouille suggests chocolate chip cookies or a vegetable curry. Botatouille might also recommend shepherd’s pie, which she joked was her mother’s recipe.
“To go from sort of a crumbling social wave to a rising wave of generative AI, to me, is an exciting transition,” said Jonah Peretti, the company’s chief executive. “And I think there are things we could definitely learn to make sure we capture more lasting value from a tech trend.”
Although BuzzFeed is one of the first media companies to experiment with artificial intelligence, many others are thinking about how to adapt to it. Executives at Bloomberg, Insider and The New York Times are weighing the potential benefits against the risks for their existing businesses.
Potential dangers include a loss of search engine traffic as AI-powered chatbots respond to search queries. And some companies that use artificial intelligence for content creation have already published articles full of errors.
Peretti shut down BuzzFeed News last month, but going forward, he said, BuzzFeed plans to experiment with AI to improve its news business, which is now organized under its HuffPost brand.
Peretti said that could include using artificial intelligence to help create headlines for search engines or brainstorm ways to tell certain stories.
But he said he did not anticipate a future in which artificial intelligence would be used to replace HuffPost journalists.
“Even if it was an evil CEO trying to replace all journalists with AI, it wouldn’t be very successful,” Peretti said. “It wouldn’t work on the business side.”
He said he was applying several lessons from BuzzFeed’s uneven relationship with social media to his experiments with artificial intelligence.
When BuzzFeed used social media to expand its audience, it didn’t always prioritize profitability. The company grew rapidly, but has since fallen on harder times. It is now worth nearly $90 million, a small fraction of its $1.7 billion peak in 2016. The shutdown of BuzzFeed News affected dozens of jobs.
The company is now focusing on building a sustainable business from the ground up, Peretti said. BuzzFeed plans to use artificial intelligence to sell subscriptions to its users by providing personalized services and personalized interactions on offers like Botatouille, he said.
“We are much more focused on monetization and much earlier than we were in those days,” Peretti said.
A big question for BuzzFeed: Will Botatouille work?
Before attending a party on Sunday night, I asked the chatbot to recommend a batch cocktail recipe to drink.
“Hello! Looks like you’re ready to party!” Botatouille responded in his usual cheerful tone, adding a warning to drink responsibly: “I highly recommend the ‘Boozy Bubbly Sherbet Punch.’ It’s a fun, fruity drink that’s perfect for a party.”
Botatouille then shared the recipe, a coherent mix of vodka, champagne and fruit juices from concentrate, topped with a dollop of rainbow sherbet.
Later, I asked Botatouille to suggest meals for a laid-off digital media worker. At first she had trouble giving an answer. “Oops. Something went wrong,” she said.
Then he had an idea.
“Hmm, you seem to be feeling a bit down. How about I recommend a meal that will lift your spirits? Botatouille said. “For a laid off digital media worker, I suggest trying 2 Ways One Skillet Chicken and Vegetable Meal Prep.”