BuzzFeed parlayed the rising power of social media into a digital media business worth more than a billion dollars at its peak. But when technology giants behind social platforms moved away from publishing, BuzzFeed’s valuation cratered.
To rebound, BuzzFeed is again turning to new technology: artificial intelligence.
The company has tried a variety of experiments since announcing plans to incorporate A.I. a few months ago, embracing the technology more than most publishers. On Tuesday, BuzzFeed introduced its most ambitious offering yet, a free chatbot called Botatouille (no relation to Pixar’s murine chef), which serves up recipe recommendations from Tasty, BuzzFeed’s food brand.
Botatouille is built using the technology that drives OpenAI’s popular ChatGPT program, customized with Tasty recipes and user data.
Rainy day? Botatouille recommends winter chili or lentil soup. Feeling lonely? Botatouille suggests chocolate chip cookies or a vegetable curry. Botatouille might also recommend shepherd’s pie, which it quipped was its mother’s recipe.
“Shifting from a sort of crumbling wave of social to a growing wave of generative A.I., to me, is an exciting transition,” said Jonah Peretti, the company’s chief executive. “And I think there’s things we could definitely learn to make sure we capture more enduring value from a technological trend.”
Though BuzzFeed is among 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 all weighing the potential upside against risks to their existing businesses.
The possible pitfalls include a loss of traffic from search engines, as A.I.-powered chatbots answer search queries. And some companies that use artificial intelligence for content creation have already published error-ridden articles.
Mr. Peretti shut down BuzzFeed News last month, but in the future, he said, BuzzFeed plans to experiment with A.I to enhance its news business, which is now organized under its HuffPost brand.
Mr. Peretti said that might include using artificial intelligence to help create headlines for search engines or brainstorm ways to tell certain stories.
But he said he didn’t anticipate a future in which artificial intelligence would be used to replace HuffPost journalists.
“Even if you were, like, an evil C.E.O. trying to replace all journalists with A.I., you would be very unsuccessful,” Mr. 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 its experiments with artificial intelligence.
When BuzzFeed used social media to expand its audience, it did not always make profitability a priority. The company grew quickly but has since fallen on harder times. It is now worth nearly $90 million — a small fraction of its peak of $1.7 billion in 2016. The shuttering of BuzzFeed News affected dozens of jobs.
The company is now focusing on building a sustainable business from the start, Mr. Peretti said. BuzzFeed plans to use artificial intelligence to sell subscriptions to its users by providing them personalized services and custom interactions on offerings like Botatouille, he said.
“We are much more focused on monetization, and focused on it much earlier than we were back in those days,” Mr. Peretti said.
One big question for BuzzFeed: Will Botatouille work?
Before attending a party on Sunday evening, I asked the chatbot to recommend a batch cocktail recipe to take.
“Hey there! Sounds like you’re ready to party!” Botatouille responded in its usual chipper tone — and added an admonition to drink responsibly. “I recommend the ‘Boozy Bubbly Sherbet Punch.’ It’s a fun and fruity drink that’s perfect for a party.”
Botatouille then shared the recipe, a coherent concoction of vodka, champagne and fruit juices from concentrate, topped with a scoop of rainbow sherbet.
Later, I asked Botatouille to suggest meals for a laid-off digital media worker. It initially struggled to give a response. “Oops. Something went wrong,” it said.
Then it had an idea.
“Hmm, it seems like you might 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 the one-pan chicken and veggie meal prep 2 ways.”