Senator Rockefeller Collides With a Content King

In the waning days of his long Senate career, the 77-year-old is crossing paths with Neetzan Zimmerman, one of the most powerful talents of the digital media era.
Photograph by Getty Images

Neetzan Zimmerman doesn’t seem to smile for pictures, affecting a mean mug instead. Maybe he knows the entire World Wide Web bows before him. Zimmerman is a millennial, and perhaps the generation’s strongest specimen: he’s something like the Internet traffic-whisperer, the darker Drudge (depending on whose color palette you’re using), the e-seer who can somehow smell what content will go viral. In the span of only years, Zimmerman has launched his own website, sold it to the realm of I Can Has Cheezburger?, where lolcats lurk and purr; become the king of Gawker, often generating more traffic than every other blogger there combined; and joined Whisper, the rapidly growing secret-sharing social media app, as editor-in-chief. In a stroke, Zimmerman is both cabinetmaker and he who fills the cabinet with wonders. For his talents, savvy media companies including BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, and Fusion have partnered with Whisper: everyone wants the manna that comes tumbling from Zimmerman’s unusual mind. Everyone, that is, but Senator John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV.

Jay Rockefeller, who, at 77, has almost 45 years on Zimmerman, is the senior U.S. senator from West Virginia, one of the least Internet-connected states in the union. He is also the great-grandson and namesake of John D. Rockefeller, the co-founder of the Standard Oil Company, whose wealth, when measured as a percentage of the economy, still ranks him as the richest American ever. Jay Rockefeller is the lone office-holding Democrat in a grand family dynasty of Republicans. He has been in politics pretty much his entire life—he worked for the Peace Corps under JFK after college, and entered West Virginia politics before he turned 30. He decided last year that he wouldn’t seek reelection for his Senate seat. But a recent series in The Guardian caught his eye and, in his final months, Rockefeller has turned his attention to Neetzan Zimmerman's Whisper. Given Rockefeller's clout as chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, with jurisdiction over the Federal Trade Commission and consumer protection issues—including online privacy—the motion is significant.

Whisper touts itself as “the safest place on the internet,” and “the best place to express yourself online.” But when two reporters from The Guardian, Paul Lewis and Dominic Rushe, went “on a three-day visit to the company’s Los Angeles headquarters last month, as part of a trip to explore the possibility of an expanded journalistic relationship with Whisper”—they were hosted at the office by Zimmerman and other company executives—they found that Whisper is considerably less than truly, safely, deeply anonymous.

Earlier this month, Lewis and Rushe published an article revealing that Whisper tracks and monitors its users—even those who opt out of the geolocation service—and collects and stores data on them. The company, the Guardian reported, has released user information to the FBI and the U.S. Department of Defense, as well as to the British intelligence agency MI5. It even, the journalists wrote, engages in “closely monitoring users it believes are potentially newsworthy, delving into the history of their activity on the app and tracking their movements through the mapping tool. Among the many users currently being targeted are military personnel and individuals claiming to work at Yahoo, Disney and on Capitol Hill." They noted that this team is “headed by Whisper’s editor-in-chief, Neetzan Zimmerman.”

This would make sense, considering the contours of  Zimmerman’s brain. No one would know better which Whispers the public will love. But since Whisper prides itself on—in fact, exists due to—the thrill of intimacy in the public-faced online space, the allegations that Zimmerman and his team collect user data and share information pose problem.

In a letter dated Oct. 22, Rockefeller, citing two of The Guardian’s articles, summoned Michael Heyward, Whisper’s 26-year-old CEO, to Capitol Hill. “Users are entitled to privacy policies that are transparent, disclosed, and followed by the company,” Rockefeller wrote. “Unfortunately, recent media accounts have raised serious questions regarding Whisper's practices and commitment to the terms of its own privacy policy.” Soon after receiving the letter, Heyward, who had already—reportedly in response to the Guardian's exposé—amended its terms of service, suspended Zimmerman and other members of Whisper. He also replied point by point to questions about privacy put forward by the Guardian, adding that “Neetzan’s reaction to the Guardian's allegations has taken away from the substance of the issue.” Before Rockefeller's letter came, Zimmerman had asserted on Twitter that The Guardian “made a mistake posting that story and they will regret it.”

Zimmerman, the deity of clickbait, is sought after by blogs, start-ups, and the ever-expanding clump of companies trying to find new ways to grow their audience. (Don’t forget that The Guardian, the respectable newspaper that won a Pulitzer this year for its coverage of surveillance and security leaks, was exploring a journalistic partnership with a company that trades in secret, anonymous posts.) The only person who has screamed fire is Rockefeller. 

Unless you are Don DeLillo, you might have a difficult time making up a character like Zimmerman, or even understanding what makes him so distinctive. He is our finder and publisher of deepest secrets, the plumber of feral id who deserves Freudian credit, too, for libido, ego, and transference.

Zimmerman grew up in Israel, where his grandmother bought him a modem in early adolescence. He took straight to it. After his required service in the Israel Defense Forces, Zimmerman went to college at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He graduated after five years, according to his LinkedIn profile, summa cum laude, a member of the Golden Key International Honour Society, and the recipient of the David Nyhan Student Journalism award. Zimmerman worked in sales and marketing, worked for Tootsie Roll and, from a base in Brookline, worked in print promotions for the Boston publisher Wiley-Blackwell. He got through his workday there, he told Capital New York last year, in a short matter of hours, and started developing a prototype site called King of Anything. In 2008, his third of five years at Wiley-Blackwell, he founded The Daily What, a nonstop cornucopia of gossip, Internet news, and Reddit dreck. He was so good at locating and posting the Internet's most clickable pictures and videos that the site's readership ballooned. In 2010, Ben Huh’s Cheezburger Network acquired the site at a five-figure price. In 2012, Zimmerman joined Gawker Media, and quickly “obliterated” his fellow-bloggers' traffic figures, earning about seventeen percent of the site's 100 million or so unique monthly visitors. His habits were recorded by journalists with some of the reverence accorded a mythological figure:

He wakes around 7:30 every morning, usually without the aid of an alarm clock. His body, fearing that he has wasted too much time sleeping, coaxes him to rise and reach for the iPad 2 that he keeps on his nightstand. 

The Gawker editor who hired him, A.J. Daulerio, said that he was responsible for about 85 percent of Gawker’s daily content.

Farhad Manjoo, then at the Wall Street Journal, wrote a profile of Zimmerman, and tried, he wrote, to “plumb his weaknesses.” He asked, “Could a smart machine—say, a system built by a big social network like Facebook, one that was privy to lots of data about which stories people like—beat him?” Manjoo allowed Zimmerman to answer: probably not.

During their conversation, Zimmerman explained his process to Manjoo: “Within 15 seconds, I know whether an item is going to work. It's a biological algorithm. I've put myself into the system—I've sort of become the system—so that when I see something I'm instantly thinking of how well it it's going to do.” Manjoo writes that Zimmerman’s major concern, looking forward, is advertisers and marketers who are overtaking viral news with the intent to sell. Zimmerman asks himself, “Once Internet culture eats itself, will I be able to do my job?” He says he may be forced to turn elsewhere “when speaking truth to Internet culture doesn't result in traffic.”

On Jan. 3 of this year, the then-editor of Gawker, John Cook, announced that Zimmerman was leaving Gawker. “WELP,” he began a note, which was given the subject line “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” He writes, “Anyway, we're fucked, start traffic-whoring.”

Zimmerman was leaving, in Cook’s words, for “a start-up that is not among our competitors in the news business.” It was, of course, Whisper. How he may have come to this change can be gleaned when he tells Manjoo his secret: a primal connection to the audience’s most human core. That’s how he knows something will go viral, Zimmerman says. “I guess you could call it intuition.” At another point: “For me to be plugged into this stuff is like being plugged into the foundation of man.”

Zimmerman's Twitter bio lists, in order, his job, his prior job, and something that could more broadly be called his identity: “Editor in Chief @Whisper; formerly Editor of the Internet @Gawker; gatekeeper of secrets.” At Whisper, the task was specifically this: to keep secrets—and maybe, because users rely on the veracity of anonymity, not to know the secrets in the first place. Whether Whisper was true to its word—whether (and how) it did track users, retain user data, share user data, and (not) notify its users about security policy—will now be determined by Rockefeller.