While reading, in this week’s New Yorker, Andrew Marantz’s profile of Emerson Spartz, the so-called “king of clickbait” who has launched several websites focused on viral content, I could never get a sense of what Marantz truly thought of his interview subject. Spartz, for those who haven’t heard of him (the name didn’t ring a bell with me), launched Muggle Net, the world’s largest Harry Potter fan community, in 1999 when he was 12. He later went on to start and abandon several other “viral” meme sites before settling on Dose.com, a daily barrage of images and videos packaged specifically to appeal to the Facebook masses (in fact the vast majority of its traffic comes from Facebook. More on that in a minute). The site receives 33 million pageviews a month, raised $8 million in venture capital funding, and employs about three dozen people. All this has been accomplished by the time Spartz turned 27.
But contrary to how impressed some may feel when seeing these numbers, the profile of Spartz is notable only insomuch as it provides an opportunity to point out how unremarkable his accomplishments are, and how Dose represents the increasing worthlessness of viral churn websites that are offering less and less value to news consumers and, ultimately, advertisers.
Aggregation websites have been around for more than a decade. In fact, they were our primary means of discovery prior to Twitter and Facebook. Blogs like BoingBoing and Laughing Squid regularly scoured the web to surface quirky and interesting content and offer it up in link-heavy posts that quickly summarized the content before sending us clicking to its original source. Getting a link on BoingBoing was a coveted accomplishment that often sent thousands of readers to your website, so it wasn’t uncommon for bloggers like me to email its editors as soon as an article went live with the hope for a link.
But the current incarnation of the viral content site, one in which articles are “optimized” for clicks, shares, and social media follows in a way that can be cynically described as emotionally manipulative, was given birth in 2012 with the launch of Upworthy. The site amassed over a million social media subscribers in a matter of months and quickly attracted media attention when its small team of “curators” were able to generate traffic levels that rivaled the readership of staid institutions like the New York Times.
Whatever your feelings on Upworthy, its creators deserve credit for not only pioneering a new form of packaging and delivering content, but for how seriously they took their role as the purveyors of mass-distributed video and imagery. Their team of curators are compensated well and directed to not only assess something for its virability, but also its impact and message. The site has a progressive ethos, one that seeks to upend conventional wisdom in such a way as to extend empathy toward those who are often maligned and discriminated against.
But with Upworthy’s rise, we began to see the emergence of copycat websites, many of which have reverse-engineered its optimization techniques and pursued a viral-centric path that placed little regard on overall message or tone beyond what is most likely to generate more clicks.
IJReview. LiftBump. Viral Nova. Dose. Visit them all and you’ll find them nearly indistinguishable in both design and approach. You have the front page with box-like display of stories, each headline accompanied with an enormous background image. The headlines feature the now-cliched “curiosity gap,” in which a hyperbolic claim is made about how watching a particular video with “blow you away” and “astonish you.” When you actually click on the headline you’re brought to an article with very little text and cartoonlishly-large social media share icons.
Most notable of all, however, is how little of the content that’s promoted on these sites was actually produced by them. In fact, most of the articles merely host videos and images that have been bouncing around the entire internet, usually surfacing first on Reddit and Imgur before being processed and repackaged by the 20-something bloggers employed by these websites.
It’s not difficult to see how common these viral meme aggregators have become. Open up your Facebook news feed and you’ll find it’s littered with them, each one as forgettable as the next. The other day while browsing Facebook I came across a page titled Mr. Technical Difficult. It has 1.5 million Facebook followers, appears to be associated with a website called Dude Comedy, and, like Dose and its ilk, merely recycles the same meme tripe that has been bouncing from one website to the next, often with little to no credit for the content’s original creators.
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That brings me back to Marantz’s New Yorker profile of Spartz. What at first seems like wonderment at Spartz’s ability quickly transforms into subtle mockery of how little substance can be found in Spartz’s business approach:
On Dose’s first day of existence, its most successful list was called “23 Photos of People from All Over the World Next to How Much Food They Eat Per Day.” It was a clever illustration of global diversity and inequity: an American truck driver holding a tray of cheeseburgers and Starbucks Frappuccinos; a Maasai woman posing with eight hundred calories’ worth of milk and porridge. Beneath the final photograph, a line of tiny gray text read “H/T Elite Daily.” It linked to a post that Elite Daily, a Web site based in New York, had published a month earlier (“See the Incredible Differences in the Daily Food Intake of People Around the World”). That post, in turn, had linked to UrbanTimes (“80 People, 30 Countries and How Much They Eat on a Daily Basis”), which had credited Amusing Planet (“What People Eat Around the World”), which had cited a 2010 radio interview with Faith D’Aluisio and Peter Menzel, the writer and the photographer behind the project.
Inherent in Dose.com is a central laziness, a tacit admission that not only does it not create its own content, but it doesn’t even try to organize it any particularly original way. For instance, a list published yesterday of 21 “adorable” owls was ripped off entirely from a Distractify list with the same exact 21 photos.
So how much longterm value does a site like Dose provide, particularly to venture capitalists who hope to multiply their investments?
For the answer, look no further than Dose’s predecessors, websites that were designed to appeal to the internet behemoth that sent the vast majority of all web visits prior to Facebook’s rise: Google.
Several years ago, we saw the launch and major backing of websites that were specifically optimized to appeal to Google users who were searching for answers to life’s most piercing questions. Demand Media. Associated Content. Mahalo Daily. Each paid bottom-of-the-barrel prices to freelancers to write how-to articles based on topics that had been deemed — using analytics tools — to be frequently-searched on Google. At one point, Demand Media, perhaps the largest of these “content farms,” was valued at $2 billion.
But then Google, which makes a point of battling those trying to game its algorithm, rolled out an update, called Panda, that devalued what it deemed low quality content, and in so doing virtually wiped out these companies’ market shares overnight. Because almost all their traffic stemmed from web searches, their readership plummeted, and today Demand Media is worth only $100 million, a 95 percent drop in value.
Facebook is at a similar point in its growth in which it stands as a massive source of traffic and must now battle those trying to game its system. It has already rolled out several algorithm changes in an attempt to “punish” pages that publish what it calls “meme” content, and the way it views and approaches both on and off platform content will continue to shift in 2015. There’s no doubt in my mind that there are Facebook engineers who are looking at sites like Dose and Dude Comedy and recognize that these content farms are providing little additional value to the social network’s users.
So yes, Spartz, along with a litany of other web entrepreneurs have figured out an easy way to game the system, but any business model that is based almost entirely on a single referral source and generates very little value (i.e. original content) on its own is in a perpetually weak position, perched atop a rug that can be pulled out beneath it at any moment. And just as the web became flooded with “SEO experts” in the mid-aughts who offered up parlor tricks with diminishing returns, Dose’s millions of pageviews can be viewed as empty calories, impressive only for their ability to degrade the internet and devalue original content. I hope Spartz enjoys his venture capital money while it lasts.
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