The Feudal System of Online Content

There’s a recent article in Salon which gives a great overview of the emergence of “viral publishers” (which need to be distinguished from “content factories”) which have grown rapidly but in a way entirely dependent upon the infrastructure of social media. They encompass everything that was wrong with the older content factories yet employ even fewer people, depending (near) entirely on user generated content rather than imposing ever more onerous employment conditions on content producers. However the dependence of the viral publishers upon social media means that with one small tweak Facebook can make their traffic plunge. The politics of circulation online are becoming ever more feudal.

There is an entire ecosystem of these sites — one industry publication uses the term “viral publishers,” which works as well as anything else — and if you use Facebook regularly you probably clicked on a link from one of them at some point in 2013. Elite Daily, Distractify, ViralNova and the grandaddy of them all, Upworthy, the site that essentially invented and perfected the form in the space of a year. Upworthy’s headlines may be mockable (I Thought I Knew How to Goad Readers Into Clicking on Something Stupid, but What I Learned Next Changed Everything), but they definitely seemed to work.

Among the few sites with more Facebook “likes” than Upworthy are the Huffington Post (at this point practically old media, by Web standards) and BuzzFeed, the site that made fogies mourn for the future of news before newer, shockingly dumber sites showed up to make BuzzFeed look respectable and sophisticated by comparison

BuzzFeed and these viral publishers depend, for their very existence, on Facebook. They talk about “social media” and “sharing” generally, but specifically it is as much about gaming Facebook as SEO was about gaming Google.

SEO is “search engine optimization,” a now-passé form of traffic goosing, involving a lot of unsexy coding tricks and liberal use of keywords and link spam to win high placement in Google results. These tricks once made various hucksters rich and helped establish the Huffington Post as one of the biggest sites on the Internet. SEO is being supplanted by a new series of tricks designed to manipulate social media. The “social sites” can claim, with some justification, to be packaging content that real people wanted to share, instead of gaming some algorithms. But just because the new techniques involve a dab of psychological manipulation doesn’t mean the formula for success isn’t just as rote: an arresting image or video still, and a headline that either stokes curiosity without satisfying it, or that promises some fresh, invigorating outrage.

If the stuff below the headline doesn’t live up to it, no matter. One of the open secrets of the Internet is that no one reads anything on the Internet. People do go around clicking on all sorts of things, but the majority of people who clicked on this piece stopped reading it a few paragraphs ago.

One slightly terrifying fact (for an employee of an online media organization) about the rise of the viral publishers last year was how each new one was less labor-intensive than the last. Each step on the path from BuzzFeed to Upworthy to ViralNova involved fewer paid humans putting less thought into each iteration of the viral-manipulation industry. Say what you will about BuzzFeed (and I have), but at least they make things. A lot of people work there, creating original stories and videos and other pieces of information and entertainment and journalism known collectively and depressingly as “content.” Upworthy makes headlines — literally dozens of them for each tiny “story” — and then embeds or links to images and videos created by others. They repackage existing content. Obviously, so does BuzzFeed. And so do Salon, and Slate, and the Entire Internet. But Upworthy realized that all it had to do was repackage existing content, and not bother to create any of its own. And then Upworthy spent 2013 kicking everyone’s else’s ass.

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