When content becomes a virus, the viral scientists ultimately win

The week or so between Christmas and New Year’s is always a slow period, even on social networks like Twitter, but one article made my feed light up despite the slowdown, at least for the media folks that I follow: namely, a piece in the New Yorker about Emerson Spartz, a 27-year-old entrepreneur the magazine refers to as the “King of Clickbait.” For most of my Twitter stream, the reaction to this piece was a combination of horror, disgust and resignation.

As depressing as the profile might be for those interested in “serious” journalism, however, I think it should be mandatory reading in all newsrooms, both traditional and digital. You may not like his work, but Spartz is learning everything he can about how content works online — which is more than I can say for plenty of other outlets. And the less we all know about that subject, the more likely it is that Spartz and his ilk will win.

By now, many media-watchers have grown accustomed to reading about viral content or “clickbait” specialists like Upworthy or BuzzFeed — which founder Jonah Peretti started as a kind of laboratory to test his theories about how and why content gets shared. People are pretty familiar with “attention gap” headlines and other tricks of the trade used by such outlets to drive huge amounts of traffic. But Emerson Spartz and his network of click factories make most of these sites look like the New York Times by comparison.

Spartz started at 12

I confess that I had never heard of Spartz before, nor most of his websites, and I expect I am not alone, even among those who follow the online media industry. His company is simply called Spartz Inc., and the names of the websites he runs are continually changing — and in any case their actual names or brands are almost irrelevant, as the New Yorker piece points out. All that matters is traffic, the vast majority of which (not surprisingly) comes from Facebook:

“The company operates thirty sites, which have no unifying aesthetic. Their home pages, which can be chaotic and full of old links, don’t always feature a Spartz logo; traffic is generated almost entirely through Facebook, so brand recognition is relatively unimportant. Most of the company’s innovations concern not the content itself but how it is promoted and packaged.”

Figuring out how content works online is something Spartz has been doing since he was a child: at the age of 12, he built and ran what became one of the largest and most popular sites devoted to Harry Potter, called MuggleNet. He used the funds from that to start a series of other sites — devoted to online memes, or inspirational content, or amazing facts. The main site in the Spartz stable right now is a site called Dose.com, formerly known as Brainwreck.


Put together, the sites run by Spartz and his team — which consists of about 35 people based in Chicago — are generating more than 60 million pageviews a month, with Dose.com accounting for about half that. By way of comparison, the Gawker Media empire of blogs like Gizmodo, Jezebel and Deadspin generates about 500 million pageviews in an average month and founder Nick Denton estimates the company is worth about $200 million. Emerson Spartz raised $8 million in venture financing last year, the New Yorker piece says, and made several million more in advertising revenue.

The fact that Spartz is building a company by trying to engineer viral content similar to BuzzFeed didn’t come as a surprise to anyone — but many in the traditional media industry did seem shocked by Spartz’s somewhat cavalier attitude towards crediting the sources of the content he uses (something BuzzFeed has also been criticized for). It’s almost as though he doesn’t see the actual source of the content as having any value at all:

“If you want to build a successful virus, you can start by trying to engineer the DNA from scratch — or, much more efficient, you take a virus that you already know is potent, mutate it a tiny bit, and expose it to a new cluster of people… more original lists take more time to put together, and we’ve found that people are no more likely to click on them.”

Providing either no credit or very little credit (usually by way of a “hat tip” link near the bottom) is arguably unethical, most of the media types in my stream pointed out. But the reality is that many readers don’t care where a piece of content came from, or even if it’s true or not — regardless of whether you think they should. I’m not saying that’s right, I’m simply pointing out that it’s a fact, one that people like Emerson Spartz will always use to their advantage.

virus sign

The other thing that seemed to horrify many of the media people I follow was the fact that Spartz is not particularly interested in objective measures of quality — the only factor that determines whether his content matters is whether people share it or not. As he puts it in the New Yorker piece: “The way we view the world, the ultimate barometer of quality is: if it gets shared, it’s quality.”

What do readers want?

Journalists and publishers, of course, prefer to define quality in terms of the industry awards that their content wins, or the attention that it gets from a specific audience. But in a very real sense, Spartz is right — you can produce the best content you want, but if it doesn’t reach readers, then on some level it has failed. And how does it reach readers? That’s the part we all need to understand, and currently people like Jonah Peretti and Emerson Spartz are doing a better job of it than many traditional media companies.

Does that mean you have to indulge in clickbait? Not at all. But it does mean that you have to pay attention to how your content is (or isn’t) flowing and moving and being shared online, and that means devoting resources to it. BuzzFeed thinks so highly of data around this question that it recently appointed Dao Nguyen, the head of its data team, as publisher. Mashable doesn’t have a front-page editor — its front page is created algorithmically based on what people are reading and what they are sharing.

Media companies are still used to thinking of themselves as being in control of content, and of having some say in how and when it reaches readers, but this is a fiction. What control they used to have over distribution channels is gone — Facebook and Twitter and SnapChat control it now. Content has been freed from its restraints, like a virus escaping from a test tube. We can figure out how it works and what it wants, or we can twiddle our thumbs while others do.

Instagram could be one of the best deals of the last decade

The news that Citigroup now thinks Instagram could be worth as much as $35 billion likely caused some mouths to fall open last week, and the list of those who found themselves agape probably included co-founder Kevin Systrom and Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, although for very different reasons. Whether Citigroup has the actual number right or not is impossible to say — but what is clear is that the Instagram acquisition could be one of the smartest things that Facebook has ever done, and one of the best deals of the past decade.

The reason why Kevin Systrom might be shaking his head a little at the valuation is that such a huge number implies he might have sold the company too soon, something that Silicon Valley founders and their financial backers often worry about after the fact. Of course, it’s difficult to say whether Instagram would ever have gotten there if it had remained an independent company and not had Facebook’s marketing power behind it.

As for Dick Costolo, he’s likely remembering when Twitter tried to buy Instagram — and, according to some reports, had a deal ready to go — only to have Mark Zuckerberg swoop in and yank the company out of his grasp with a much higher offer. Now Instagram not only has more users than Twitter (although Twitter co-founder Evan Williams said recently that he doesn’t care about those figures) but it is now worth more too, at least theoretically.

Photo sharing = ads

Getting to $35 billion requires you to do some mental gymnastics of the kind that Wall Street analysts are pretty accustomed to — you take the 300 million users that Instagram says it has, then estimate what each one could generate in terms of advertising revenue, then look at what proportion of Facebook’s overall revenue that represents, then apply the same multiple that Facebook’s stock has and bingo: eventually you get $35 billion.

Om Malik — Founder, Gigaom Speaker: Kevin Systrom — Co-Founder and CEO, Instagram
Om Malik with Instagram founder and CEO Kevin Systrom

So Citigroup analyst Mark May previously argued that Instagram was worth about $19 billion based on this arithmetic, but now he says its almost twice as much. Why? Because he thinks that Instagram’s advertising — with companies like Adidas, GE and Lexus — is going so well that the company could bring in far more revenue than he expected. In fact, he estimates that Instagram’s revenue will be close to $3 billion next year, or about three times what Facebook paid for the company.

Even if you disagree with the $35 billion price tag that Citigroup has come up with, it’s hard not to argue that Mark Zuckerberg got a hell of a deal when he bought Instagram for only $1 billion, even though that sounded like an awful lot of money at the time (of course, that was before Facebook paid an even more mind-boggling $19 billion for WhatsApp). Is it the best deal of the past decade? I think it’s right up there.

Better than YouTube?

It’s not just that Facebook paid $1 billion for something that might now be worth $35 billion, although that is pretty incredible in itself. It’s that by buying Instagram, Mark Zuckerberg was able to tap into something that had the potential to disrupt Facebook in the worst kind of way: a photo-sharing app that not only was growing like a weed, but appealed to younger users — the very same user base that was becoming increasingly disenchanted with Facebook proper.

Facebook’s purchase looks even smarter because of what it did after the acquisition, which is virtually nothing — in other words, it left Instagram alone to function more or less as it had before. I come across younger fans all the time who don’t even know that Facebook owns Instagram, and that’s probably for the best. This is a classic example of Zuckerberg’s willingness to disrupt himself and his business at the drop of a hat, often by spending billions (WhatsApp is another great example).

The only acquisition I can think of that comes close to Facebook’s purchase of Instagram is Google buying YouTube: just as it was in Instagram’s case, most analysts thought the $1.65 billion price tag for the video-sharing site was insane — especially given the potential copyright issues. This year, YouTube is estimated to be worth about $40 billion to Google, which is right in the same ballpark as Instagram, if you believe Citigroup’s numbers. And Google did the same thing with YouTube as Facebook did with Instagram — namely, mostly left it alone. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Instead of killing reader comments, we should be trying to fix them

Every month or so, it seems, a media outlet decides to get rid of their comments. The latest is The Week, which follows Reuters and Re/code, both of whom shut down their comments recently. Every outlet that does this says the same thing: conversation has moved to social media, etc. But as New York Times staffer Mat Yurow argues in a post at Medium, this argument is essentially a cop-out. Comments need to be fixed, not killed.

In its post about shutting down comments, The Week says that “in the age of social media, the smartest and most vibrant reader conversations have moved off of news sites and onto Facebook and Twitter.” But even if this is the case — which I’m not disputing — whose fault is that? Most sites have done virtually nothing to try and make their comment sections a more hospitable place for smart and vibrant discussion, so why wouldn’t it go elsewhere?

The Week piece also says that the site has “a deep respect for the intelligence and opinions of our readers.” But not enough respect, apparently, to allow those readers to post their thoughts about its articles on the same page where those articles appear.

Instead, readers are forced to try and track down the writers and editors of the magazine on various social networks and then do their best to find the conversation about whatever article they are interested in, and then convince someone on the staff to engage with them. What many news outlets seem to mean by the discussion “moving to Twitter and Facebook” is that it’s much easier to ignore.

Engagement equals value

Yurow, by contrast — who works on the audience development team at the New York Times, and before that worked for Huffington Post and Bloomberg — believes as I do that handing over a key component of your relationship with readers to Twitter and Facebook is a mistake. Not only does it give up something valuable, but it suggests to readers that their comments and interaction aren’t worth the trouble:

“To simply give up, and hand our most engaged users over to Facebook and Twitter is a major loss to a industry that is in dire need of loyalty. We need to come up with real, sustainable solutions?—?solutions that view community through the lens of modern culture, technology and business. It is imperative that we save comments. We owe it to our readers, we owe it to our writers, and we owe it to ourselves.”

Comments are broken, Yurow argues, because most publications have not put the time or resources into trying to make them work, and so they have become troll and spam-filled backwaters that everyone tries to avoid. But that’s not the fault of readers — it’s the fault of publishers for not seeing their relationship with their readers as being of value. So how can this perception of comments be turned around? Yurow outlines several ways in his post.

For one thing, media sites could look at the actual return on investment that they get from engaging with readers — which is real, and can be measured. It’s easier for sites with subscriptions to do this, since they can track how many commenters eventually “convert” into being subscribers. But it’s not that hard to tie reader time spent with things that matter to your business, whether it’s advertising or something else. As Yurow points out:

“Commenters do (at least) two things most site visitors do not: they explicitly demonstrate interest in your product, and they willingly hand over their email address. In any other business, we’d call these people ‘warm leads.’ In media, we call them trolls.”

Readers deserve our time

The other key point I agree with Yurow on is that many sites are to blame for their own troll-filled comments, because their writers and editors fail to engage even with the intelligent commenters, and so the predictable happens — flame-wars and offensive behavior take over. As blogger Anil Dash pointed out in a post in 2011, if there is bad behavior in your comments then you as the site owner are partially to blame. Yurow notes:

“It is important that some action is taken to remind readers that their voice is being heard. This can come in the form of a featured comment, a short response, or even a strategic email or tweet. Will this completely stop belligerence at the bottom of the page? Absolutely not. But it will help set the expectation of civil discourse and conversation.”

Among other things, Yurow also suggests that publishers try to figure out some way to make comments more relevant for more readers — whether it’s by having editors and writers highlight or point out interesting comments (something Forbes and other sites such as Gigaom already do), or by using algorithms and other tools such as reader votes to surface the best, something the New York Times itself has experimented with in the past.

Citizen journalism and vigilantism are two sides of the same coin

In a recent piece for BuzzFeed, writer Charlie Warzel looked at what he calls the “mutation” of citizen journalism, and how this dream of a more democratic media has somehow turned into a vicious form of vigilantism — including incidents like the one in which a right-wing blogger tried to identify the victim in a controversial campus rape incident. But I think in his haste to condemn that kind of activity, Warzel overstates the case against citizen journalism.

There have always been attack-dog style bloggers, especially on the right, and I don’t think this kind of approach is any more virulent than it was five or 10 years ago, although it may get more attention thanks to Twitter. Also, it’s not as though citizen journalism was somehow bastardized and became vigilantism — they are opposite edges of the same sword. We can’t have one without enabling the other, and to the extent that we crack down on one we also cripple its alternative.

Are there examples of when bloggers and other amateur journalists lost their way or went too far in their pursuit of the capital T truth? Of course there are. One of the most infamous occurred after the bombings in Boston, when some members of a Reddit sub-forum tried to identify the alleged bombers and targeted an innocent man. But this kind of over-stepping isn’t confined to amateurs: journalists at Gawker have engaged in what some might call vigilantism by “doxxing” or publicly identifying children who posted racist remarks following Barack Obama’s re-election, or outing anonymous Reddit moderators for offensive behavior.

Both professional and amateur journalists were also involved in identifying a man who posted fake Twitter alerts in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Were all of these incidents justified? That’s up to readers to decide for themselves. I happen to think that some or all of them overstepped the bounds of what we consider appropriate investigative behavior — and the right-wing blogger in question has definitely done so — but it is a grey area at best.

Is there a way to legislate or prevent those kinds of incidents without preventing more beneficial reporting by citizen journalists and bloggers? I can’t think of one.

It’s easy to focus on the negative aspects of social media\, but it has also been an incredibly powerful tool for good: Just think of the information that has come out of Egypt or Syria or Ukraine that would never have made it into the public eye, or the work of bloggers like Eliot “Brown Moses” Higgins and his fact-checking of government and anti-government propaganda. Think of what a formerly little-known blogger named Glenn Greenwald was able to accomplish, and how much that has expanded what we know about the security and intelligence establishment in the US and elsewhere.

How do we distinguish between what bloggers like Greenwald or Higgins do, and what bloggers like Chuck Johnson do? I honestly don’t know if there is a way. The same tools that enabled Andy Carvin during the Arab Spring or Brown Moses in Syria or Greenwald’s Snowden scoop can also be used for evil, but does that mean they aren’t valuable, or need to be restricted? No. It just means that most swords come with two sides.