By Nick Darbonne
Actually, nothing happened. I was just trying to get your attention. But hey, before you get mad, I’m not the only one doing it. Websites compete for your clicks every day; that’s how they get money from advertisers. Sites like BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post, Upworthy, Elite Daily, and their “viral content” ilk are notorious for using alluring (and oftentimes misleading) headlines and provocative photos in order to rack up clicks, likes, shares, and, in some cases, controversy. It isn’t just viral sites, either. If you pay the least bit of attention, you’ll notice that many YouTube thumbnails are essentially the same: extreme facial contortions, bright colors, sensationalist titles. Welcome to the future of the tabloid. And the worst part? It’s more profitable than ever.
Real quick: how do you feel about the internet? Yes, it’s possible to have mixed feelings. I do. On one hand, it brings us great things: opportunities to connect with likeminded people, a platform for marginalized voices, and a deluge of information. On the other, we’re also given the opportunity to connect with angry men who lack social skills, a platform for the rants of racists/fascists/misogynists, and a deluge of information. It’s everything, by everyone.
Blame the internet’s skyrocketing popularity. Gone is the era of computer enthusiasts posting on BBSs. The progression of dial-up to broadband to smartphones has led the web into the sphere of ubiquity. There’s no escape now. Virtually everyone in a developed country has access; it’s worldwide in every sense of the word. Whether it’s through an iPhone, a tablet, or a public library computer, we now have a communal space for yelling, screaming, and vomiting, hoping the rest of the world can hear our desperate cries. In the past, it was akin to an interconnected Wild West.
Thankfully, the “anything goes” nature of the internet has been scaled back in recent years. Extreme outliers like the Nazis of Stormfront, shock sites (remember goatse.cx?), and communities of armpit fetishists have been pushed to the margins as most internet traffic now centers on Netflix and Facebook. In fact, since 2008, Facebook has brought a ton of people online, and websites have begun to cater to these new visitors. To put this into perspective: according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, 58% of all Americans age 18 and over use Facebook. Sound a little low? The Census Bureau says there are currently over 320 million people living in the United States. Put two and two together, and you have millions bathed in the blue-white glow of connectedness.
According to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, 58% of all Americans 18 and over use Facebook. Sound a little low? The Census Bureau says there are currently over 320 million people living in the US. Put two and two together, and you have millions bathed in the blue-white glow of connectedness.
It’s not a bad thing that today’s web is so accessible; in fact, it’s mostly good. But now that the audience is so vast, the search for “the next big thing” is more important to advertisers than ever. You’ve heard of viral content. When something, say a video, a meme, or a song, goes viral, it gets shared repeatedly. It spreads like a virus. Get it? Anyway, the proliferation of Internet diseases gives hope to people who seek to profit off of page views. How do you take advantage of the internet’s propensity to endlessly disperse content? You start a viral content aggregator site, of course. You collect that potentially viral content; you hoard everything you suspect has even a fraction of a shot at going viral, and you post. You hire staff and tell them to publish content every few minutes. The internet never sleeps, so why should you? I mean, who knows when the next “Gangnam Style” will hit? Its popularity will quickly peter out, but that doesn’t matter. This is about the now. (Sorry, Psy, you had your 15 minutes.)
It’s all good fun, though, right?
Yeah. I’m not actually mad about any of this, I’m just confused. Most of these sites offer fluff for office drones to peruse during their down time, along with sanctimonious, watered-down opinion pieces for high schoolers to read and feel politically active. Occasionally, you’ll see a cat video or two, internet mainstays that they are.
Here’s what I’m trying to get at: sites like BuzzFeed, founded by possible supervillain Jonah Peretti (he’s also partially responsible for that abomination called the Huffington Post), have their place, so long as they’re not taken too seriously, but BuzzFeed has an AP-style “news” section. Yes, news is available from other, better sources (like the AP), and it’s touted as a small aspect of the overall site. But it’s jarring. You’ll be on the front page surrounded by articles extolling the virtues of celebrities who spout non-confrontational, half-baked, progressive (but never original) opinions, and then you’ll see a story or two about a refugee crisis or a shooting, right over to the side under the BuzzFeed News logo. It’s crazy. But is it journalism? Is it good journalism? It’s absolutely nothing special. Peretti’s spared the sensationalism here; the “real news” section of BuzzFeed is dry and likely gets lower traffic than the rest of the site. Occasionally, BuzzFeed has even been the first to break a story, all in the rush to remain relevant and get clicked. But real news is not the main draw of viral content farms. It’s not fun enough!
Within the past few years, a handful of websites have been toying with the idea of web “journalism.” Gone are paid subscriptions, rare are print editions, and impatient are readers. Many of these new internet-based publications prioritize clicks and views, algorithms and memes. They’re giving you news, but it’s actually the “news” that you most want to click on. Much of it is disposable, and it’s usually sensationalistic. You’ll read about your Zodiac sign, you’ll find out what color hamster you are, and your eyes will glaze over at angry rants. Here, content stands for little save for how viral it can get. After all, the flood of new stories will bury it all by tomorrow. And, of course, ad revenue allows websites to keep rolling in dough as long as readers keep clicking on enticing headlines that often fail to deliver. It’s profitable, as it takes little effort to run what’s called a content farm. Just make sure your headlines are eminently clickable, yet ultimately cheap and unfulfilling. It’s internet fast food, and we love it.
Here, content stands for little save for how viral it can be… It’s internet fast food, and we love it.
Viralnova. BuzzFeed. Boingboing. Upworthy. Elite Daily. Whatever. You know them. There are endless variations of these sites. Some are sad; they clearly have few users, but proceed to farm anyway in the hopes of some teenager clicking on an eye-catching headline about sex or memes, or sex memes. Imagine “Twenty Minutes Into Netflix And Chill And You Won’t Believe The Look He Gave Her” accompanied by an artifact-laden, photoshopped image of a guy with three eyes that’s been circulating the web since 2004. Funny stuff, huh? Expect even weirder, pit-of-the-internet ads promising to tell you what Obama doesn’t want you to know.
At least BuzzFeed puts more effort than most into their content, but intrinsic to the framework of viral sites is an unending flow of articles and an incredibly large writing staff. It’s good that so many jobs are open to writers (who are almost always Millennials), but when you look at the writing, it all begins to blend together. You can always expect the same presentation: the tone is invariably “perpetually excited, clean-cut post-grad.” Maybe you can stomach that, but the sheer sensory overload that accompanies many sites’ home pages might be enough to deter you. But maybe by now, most BuzzFeeders are used to large text, useless lists, eye-grabbing photos (often of half-naked people), and the now infamous yellow button parade of “LOL win omg cute fail wtf,” ostensibly the whole gamut of human emotion.
While it’s true that for years, print tabloids have been similarly notorious for attention-grabbing headlines, total fabrications, and sensationalist nonsense, it’s never been so widespread as to affect what feels like the dominant mode of journalism. Ancient stuff like Weekly World News, Us Weekly, or whatever trash you see in the checkout line, serves as the blueprint for the manipulative viral-content-dumpster sites of today, but there’s not nearly as much money in print as there now is in web content. Print is dying. Today, websites can go after a wider audience, especially youth. But how effective is this really? I mean, the last time I saw corporate, revenue-minded adults go after the youth market, the official Denny’s Tumblr started posting pictures of Pepe the Frog superimposed onto a stack of pancakes. What bizarro universe did we step into that allowed a long-lost 4chan mascot to get co-opted by the ultimate meet-your-dealer-here-at-3-A.M. restaurant chain?
Thankfully, this viral content business isn’t too hard. BuzzFeed’s already put out one entirely automated article, a list of “275 Ways Americans Hurt Themselves — Badly — Playing With Fireworks” pulled straight from the database of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. Other lazy “articles” have been known to curate unaltered posts from sites like Whisper or Reddit. In the future, all of BuzzFeed’s content could be managed by robots posting Spongebob GIFs with computer-generated funny captions. We’re halfway there. After all, it’s long been in the interests of capitalists to get us to buy cheaply produced trash sold at high profit margins. Viral sites work similarly. They collect junk in the hopes that it might be valuable. They’re like hoarders, or maybe more like that kid you know who drinks long-expired codeine syrup cuz dude, what if I get high anyway?
The truth is that you’ve actually squandered hours of your young life, fooling your brain into believing you’ve achieved peak productivity when all you’ve really done is read 25 misattributed Taylor Swift quotes That Will Change The Way You Think About Relationships.
So if publications could churn out story after story of trivial-but-enjoyable material, they would be set. BuzzFeed, HuffPost, Upworthy, et al. celebrate a culture of mindless celebrity worship, easily digestible progressivism, photos of food you’ll never make, and feel-good stories so minor in impact, you’ll know you’ve wasted your time, but you won’t care: you’re getting news, remember? The truth is that you’ve actually squandered hours of your young life, fooling your brain into believing you’ve achieved peak productivity when all you’ve really done is read 25 misattributed Taylor Swift quotes That Will Change The Way You Think About Relationships.
The internet is both utterly useless and endlessly enriching. I trust we all know that, and can make our own decisions. If not, allow BuzzFeed to give you 10 Things You Can Do With An Avocado You Never Thought Possible; I’ve got one for Mr. Peretti, but it’s not fit to print.