On a January morning in 2019, I walked into the BuzzFeed New York office thinking about how I would reuse my dream-job routine. The night before, I’d read on Twitter that BuzzFeed was going to cut 15% of its global workforce; it was confirmed by email seconds later.
“This job is the perfect hybrid of my interests, of everything I’ve spent the last decade putting together,” I had crowed to anyone willing to listen. “And I love it.” It was a line I’d started using after I got a response to my job application, and continued well into my third year with the company.
In my memory, I waltzed outside after my second-round interview for the role of New Markets Editor and onto the sidewalk with music-video enthusiasm, imagining an impromptu dance parade in the streets of downtown Manhattan. Every rom-com-induced cliché felt true, because I did it. It was going to be me.
The job ended four years later in the fluorescent lighting of HR Breakout Room 1, along with the jobs of two hundred other employees. My email and Slack chats were gone; I was going to walk out of the building and nothing was going to follow me.
My offer letter came in at 11 pm on a Wednesday night in the spring of 2015, three months after BuzzFeed covered The Dress and nine months after the announcement of a major expansion plan. After six weeks of interviews, I’d been hired to help open new offices around the world. I FaceTimed my family in North Carolina, screaming that I’d gotten the job before I had even confirmed the salary.
Officially, my job was to suss out locations where BuzzFeed could launch new international editions. The work was a mix of travel, research, and vetting candidates to run the future local teams. I buzzed with the satisfaction of commitment and the glow of acceptance. Here at last was a job that made sense of my collection of previous employment and life experiences — from several years of work in digital media (at Mic, née PolicyMic), and several years before that in various international NGOs and graduate research.
I spent my first month in the role bobbling around the office between orientation sessions like a bewildered toddler. There were two full-sized refrigerators in the canteen full of only Canada Dry seltzer, which I drank all day. Each time I cracked open a cold, cerulean can at my desk, I marveled at the ker-shhhh sound it made when I popped the lid.
Sitting at my desk, I’d think how happy I was to have a job that warded off anxiety: The kind that seeped in from relatives’ remarks about the way my life should be instead of the way it was; from my quiet, embarrassed hope to someday become a full-time writer. I felt proud that I had made it to a brand-name organization by the age of 31. I liked that I could use elitist soundbites I’d heard other people say — I could describe my position as “the job I went to graduate school for” and pass it off as my own truism. The organization was big enough, and the job description slick enough, that I was no longer subject to prying questions about how I was and what I did.
“I can’t believe I get to work here,” I’d mumble, and then text my family, several thousand times a day.
One of my first tasks was to fly to Madrid to hire a new team to launch BuzzFeed Spain. I scribbled into a little red Moleskine once we’d reached the cruising altitude: “I always want to care that I got this job, because this is a dream COME TRUE.” I pressed the pen into the notebook so hard it made a hole in the page.
Within six months, I’d been to Korea and Japan; I’d given a keynote presentation at a conference in Jakarta. The Spain edition launched out of a black-walled WeWork space, staffed by four people whose hiring I’d overseen directly. I was stunned by the amount of autonomy I had. I marveled at what I saw being built — the willingness to experiment, the inclusivity in the content, the staggering, mind-boggling size of a global readership.
The change happened the way the air in a room shifts when a joke doesn’t land: slightly, but suddenly.
In February 2016, the BuzzFeed New York staff moved into a new office building. The sheer size of the space was startling: Six floors of desks and glass conference rooms. Parts of the space were left unused, and the office felt emptier than the old one. I realized the smallness of what I was working on in the scale of of the whole organization.
That March, I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and needed to take medical leave. When I returned, my boss gave me a heads up that the company was pausing international expansion for the time being. Three months earlier, I’d been combing skincare shops in Seoul during a trip to scope out the possibility of launching Korean BuzzFeed in partnership with the messaging app Kakao; now, I gave myself insulin injections and wondered if I would be out of the job before it reached its one-year anniversary. I remember thinking, “Nothing can change that fast.”
I returned to the New York office, and, without an actual corporate remit, tried to find ways to invent grandiose ideas and connect threads that didn’t exist. I wore the same pleasant expression on my face to tell strangers what I did when asked about my job, but I was hiding the truth — that I barely felt well enough to work full-time, that I’d put my dreams of being a writer on layaway, that I’d pinned the bulk of my self-worth to a romanticized job description. The job that had given me existential relief was now a source of a feeling of worthlessness and relentless fatigue.
“I am so happy I am employed somewhere I love, especially given this health issue,” was my go-to phrase. But there was no getting around the fact that, without plans to open in a new international market, the job I’d been hired to do simply didn’t exist anymore. I never wrote, not even “on the side” for the site, which was an explanation I used to spin how my job was connected to my actual dream. One year passed, and then two more. I grew bored and complacent. My manager and I had agreed on a role shift for me, but I never found a way to sink into whatever it needed to be. I was trying to connect with work that didn’t fully exist, every day, to find ways in which I could be valuable.
I decided my work was to structure my days in a way that made me seem worthwhile. I went through phases of phone calls and meetings and updating spreadsheets and pitching insights. I considered that each meeting, each new person, could be the key to reconnecting to something meaningful. It had to be there, somewhere, I reasoned — otherwise I would have been out of a job already. I needed to hunt down the secret thing that would return my work to its original sense of glory.
I rationalized that I was being an idiot.
I had a place to go every morning and a direct deposit into my bank account every two weeks. I felt sad that my work felt hollow, and I also felt ashamed for the sense of privilege that getting paid for a purposeless job entailed. I looked forward to the stretches of New York City sidewalks leading to the BuzzFeed building entrance, knowing soon I’d be enclosed. The AC blasted year-round, so the mugginess of summer never crept in. I got to sit at my desk in neutral, no matter the season.
Friends and family occasionally came to visit the office. I’d take them on a tour as they marveled at the views, the snacks, the walls plastered with the zeitgeist of internet culture.
“This office is insane. I can’t believe you work here.”
“I know,” I’d say with a smile. What I meant was, “It’s comforting to be able to tell you that I have this job.” I usually avoided taking guests past my own desk, fearing that if they asked my coworkers what I did, I would be outed as a fraud.
Occasionally the different departments were shifted around from floor to floor. Each time we moved, my team and I carried our boxes up the stairs to our new spot. I was baffled by the amount of things my coworkers carried with them, the stuff that sat on their desks at work. I noticed my own box grew lighter with each move: I’d discarded the extra logo stickers I’d brought home from Madrid; I no longer needed the Kakao app swag and the face masks I’d purchased in Seoul. I’d bought too many in the first place, euphoric that my hotel was so close to the best markets. My Google docs hadn’t been updated in twelve months. The ideas had collected dust; I deleted the docs, too.
The layoffs happened in waves. In late 2017, a hundred workers were let go from the UK and Los Angeles offices. British BuzzFeed was the company’s first international edition and had my favorite sense of humor. France came next, in June of 2018: the entire operation was shut down. Rumors of another round of US layoffs for early 2019 swept through the office. There was a sense that something was coming months before anything actually did.
And then, at 4:30 pm on that January afternoon, it was over. I blinked in the bright lights of the makeshift termination room.
“Am I the only one on my team being let go?” I asked the head of HR. My voice sounded small, and I willed it not to crack. I learned that the Spain office, the one I’d opened, was closing too.
I left the little room and plopped on a couch in the hallway. I was suddenly, desperately very sorry. I wanted to tell each person how much I loved them and what they meant to me. I wanted to apologize for not doing more. I wanted to go through the stairwells one more time, to take in each hallway, to make sure I knew that I was really there.
I breathed in, as the realization came though in quiet, dreadful waves that I hadn’t really been at BuzzFeed in a long time.
I thought about the report I sent out in the beginning of each month and how I hadn’t started on the one for next month. I was planning to do it the following week. Working on it was stressful, but suddenly it didn’t exist anymore.
On the walk home I passed a coworker who had started on my team the month before, who had not been laid off. “Heeeeey. Just gettin’ home in the cold, huh?” I asked in a singsong voice, with the biggest, fakest smile on my face. I would just pretend it was nothing until I was safe in my apartment.
Then in March of this year, as the coronavirus pandemic shut down the economy, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti announced he would forego his salary, and that staff who weren’t furloughed would receive pay cuts. In an instant, my relationship to the memory of my last year at BuzzFeed fell apart. I thought back with horror on the simplicity I’d had: I’d been laid off with severance, in a virus-free economy, and used the financial security to start a freelancing career. I’d been able to close a chapter of my life with misty-eyed appreciation. Getting that job at the time I did had meant something to me — perhaps too much.
But now, it could mean something else.