For today’s Deez Interview, we had the distinct privilege of chatting with Cates Holderness, a former BuzzFeeder who you all definitely know as The One Who Found The Dress (almost exactly 4 years ago!!!). We adored getting all of her thoughts on perfecting that internet voice and understanding the power of online communities (“I figured if we were yelling about it, maybe the rest of the internet would yell about it?” is our new personal motto, tbh), and you will, too.
The interviewee: Cates Holderness (follow her @catesish!)
The gig: Former editorial strategist at BuzzFeed
You've spent the past 8 years at BuzzFeed deeply immersed in the world of online communities, like Tumblr. What first drew you to this part of the digital universe?
I am An Old™ and I grew up on dialup AOL. I was in my tweens when AOL chat rooms first became a thing and I roleplayed in a few anime and book-related fandom-based chat rooms. I'm still internet-friends with someone I used to RP with in a Sailor Moon AOL chat room circa 1995. That weird and fun experience led me to Geocities webrings and forum-based communities. I kept active interest in these communities as the wider internet expanded, and I gradually got into LiveJournal and the communities there. I never lost sight of the internet as being a weird and wonderful (and sometimes awful, to be fair) way of connecting with other people with shared interests.
After I graduated from college in NC with a sociology degree, I was studying for the GRE's and found BuzzFeed. I spent my free time posting as a Community member back in 2011, and was good at it because I understood the BF audience. Eventually I applied for a job there for shits and giggles, and to my shock, got hired. :)
What's the best and worst way that you've seen internet culture change over the past 8 years?
Man, the internet is both the best and worst thing. I'm glad it's growing up in some ways (attribution and credit is vitally important), but in other ways it has become toxic and overwhelming. There's not an easy answer for this! Online and IRL identities are no longer separated the way they were 10 years ago, and it's hard for me to say whether that's good or bad. It's just a fact.
As someone with a background in sociology, I'd argue the two identities aren't necessarily that different — or, maybe, that there's a big overlap. Identity performance is something that people have been doing forever (from a sociological symbolic interactionist POV), and now there's a new medium for people to manage and perform their identities. The best and worst thing about internet culture, to me, is that we as humans have to integrate and resolve those two identities.
According to internet lore, you found The Dress via a member of the BuzzFeed Tumblr community. How did that all unfold?? (Also, obvi: what color did you first think it was??)
BLUE AND BLACK.
TL;DR, I ran BuzzFeed's Tumblr presence for a few years and our audience on Tumblr knew the brand's blog runner was an Actual Human who read and responded to messages. Basically someone messaged BuzzFeed and was like "me and my friends are freaking out, can you weigh in on this?" and the rest is kinda history. I figured it'd be A Thing when I asked some colleagues what color they thought it was and they started yelling at one another.
I figured if we were yelling about it, maybe the rest of the internet would yell about it? Turns out I was right! I kinda knew it was gonna be a whole thing after I posted it and left the office and commuted home. When I got off the subway in Brooklyn my phone kept crashing because of my Twitter and text notifications. That's kinda when I figured Something Was Happening. It was fun and I'm grateful for playing a part in a delightful social media phenomenon.
Now more than ever, brands and publications and like, everyone else, are obsessed with perfecting that "internet voice." Based on your experience, what's the secret ingredient to having that?
Ohhhh my god this is the ultimate question. THERE'S NO SECRET. It totally depends on your audiences, what you want from them, how you want to present yourself or your brand, and how much you decide to put yourself out there. There's no one Good Internet Voice!
Brands should have different voices for different platforms depending on what they want out of them! Internet Culture™ is different for every platform, and the key is talking to each platform in its own voice. People who go to Instagram are gonna want a totally different voice/brand/identity than those who go to Tumblr or Reddit or Twitter. The internet is big! It's okay to tailor your voice to different audiences. Just listen to your readers, learn what they want, and give them that.
As brands and tech platforms take over the internet and make everything more branded, more sanitized, and more polished, do you think there's still hope for the kind of organic online communities that first made the internet so great?
Pardon my French, but fuck yeah there's hope. I find daily joy (even after I was laid off from BuzzFeed) in the online communities I've joined and fostered on Tumblr, on Reddit, and (GASP) on certain boards of 4chan. I think, as weird and tight and bad as lots of the internet has become in the last few years, there's still space for joy and humor and surprises and awfulness, and that's what makes the internet good and interesting. (But also RIP Vine, it was Too Pure To Survive.
PS. FWIW, 4chan taught me how to bake bread, which is now my favorite hobby.
Don’t forget to follow Cates @catesish! That’s it for now, plus we’re taking next week off for some R&R. See ya in March!