It happens once every few months. A business or media reporter writes a breathless profile of some previously unknown web native who has “cracked the viral code.” We’ve been treated for years to the adage that you can’t engineer viral, but this social scientist, through the clever use of headlines and listsicles and blatant Reddit theft, has finally reverse-engineered the process that delivers millions of pageviews to a single aggregated post. One of the earliest sightings of these articles came in April 2014, when Bloomberg News featured the man behind Viral Nova. “The site has emerged as one of the defining media companies of this convulsive era,” wrote Bloomberg’s Felix Gillette. Later it was Leslie Kaufman in the New York Times profiling IJReview, a kind of conservative Upworthy. In January, the New Yorker crowned Emerson Spartz, the founder of another website you’ve likely never heard of, the “King of Clickbait.”
“I keep hearing people around town talking about this young man as a Steve Jobs kind of guy,” Gary Holdren, one of Spartz’s chief investors, told me. “I think his stuff is indicative of where digital media is headed.”
The latest installment of hyperbolic proclamations of internet dominance is brought to you by Business Insider, which recently profiled a website that started “in [Ashton Kutcher’s] living room as an experiment of combining technology with the power of social media to drive additional views of impactful, socially relevant, and sometimes just light-hearted stories throughout the world.” All this is just window dressing to say “yet another website that produces nothing original and traffics in high volumes of fly-by visitors via the use of cheaply-aggregated content.” Hilariously enough, the profile’s opening line sums up the trumped-up exaltation through which these sites are covered and the ultimate folly these articles succumb to:
Ashton Kutcher owns one of the most important media companies in America, and almost no-one even knows it exists.
Why is it one of the most important media companies in America? Because it has “27.5 million US monthly unique visitors (and 47 million globally)” and “it’s one of the fifty biggest websites in the US.” But with such mind-blowing traffic numbers, how come nobody knows it exists? This obvious paradox is never addressed in these articles. But it’s rather easy to explain. These “viralologists,” as the New Yorker described Spartz, are far from genius innovators and are instead purveyors of cookie-cutter strategies that generate near-worthless traffic and almost no brand loyalty. Visit all these websites and you’ll find they’re all near-identical in not only design and sensibility, but content as well. In fact, many of them have recently discarded any pretense that they assemble content in original ways and now they just rip off each other’s listicles wholesale, at best slightly modifying the headline:
[Ashton Kutcher’s website] markets itself as a platform with a social conscience, aiming to “leverage viral social storytelling to create positive change in the world” — but the truth is rather uglier. The site has lifted content from BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post, Cracked, Matador Network, and elsewhere — all seemingly without the authors’ permissions and with little in the way of source credits.
The A+ article “This Girl Was Sent Home In Tears Because Her Dress Was Too Short. So Her Mom Did The Most Awesome Thing Ever.”, for example, is almost identical to a BuzzFeed post by Ryan Broderick. The only significant difference, besides the headline, is the removal of one photo and the addition of a request for readers “to share it with your friends.”
You don’t have to dig deep with any of these sites to find accusations of content theft. Spartz, in his New Yorker profile, openly brags that taking the time to assemble an original list is a waste of time.
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So if these traffic behemoths are easily replicable and take little skill to create, what part do they actually play in the future of media? As Ben Thompson deftly points out, they’re simply hastening the demise of the very metric for which they’re worshiped: the pageview:
The problem is that online ads are inherently deflationary: just as content has zero marginal cost, so does ad inventory, which means it’s trivial to make more. A limited amount of total advertising dollars spread over more inventory, though, means any individual ad is worth less and less. This resulted in a bit of a prisoner’s dilemma: the optimal action for any individual publication, particularly in the absence of differentiated ad placements or targeting capability, is to maximize ad placement opportunity (more content) and page views (more eyeballs), even though this action taken collectively only hastens the decline in the value of those ads. Perversely, the resultant cheaper ads only intensify the push to create more content and capture more eyeballs; quality is very quickly a casualty.
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It’s not a coincidence that the rise of these viral aggregation sites has correlated with near-universal interest in content marketing and native advertising. The traffic race has become unsustainable from a business standpoint, and so we’ve seen a slow-but-steady shift in the industry that redirects the focus to quality, loyal readerships, those who will stay on a website to pause and click on sponsored content within its feeds. This has also led to a decoupling of content from a news org’s domain. BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti recently stated that he doesn’t care whether BuzzFeed content is read on BuzzFeed.com or on Facebook or YouTube or some other platform; when you don’t sell ads based on pageviews but instead on how widely a piece of native advertising spreads, then suddenly it becomes a lot less relevant how it spreads.
In January, I declared 2015 the year viral content becomes worthless, and though the pageview certainly won’t go down without a fight, worshiping at its altar is quickly becoming the vestige of a dying religion. Yes, we still see glowing profiles of these unclothed emperors, but they’re increasingly appearing alongside profiles of those who have eschewed the traffic game and placed all their efforts on delivering quality. And if the internet truly is the meritocracy we claim it is, then quality will reign in the end.
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