Is viral content the next bubble?

The Wire | PandoDaily | The Wall Street Journal

The website Viral Nova emulates sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy, and was in October “already nearly half the size of the sites that inspired it,” Alex Litel writes. Its success suggests specializing in viral content “can be reverse engineered fairly quickly by anyone with a careful eye for emulation — which is to say everyone on the Internet.”

Viral Nova publishes articles with headlines like “This Puppy Taught Me More In 1 Minute Than Anyone Else Has Done In A Lifetime” and “Yes, This Is A Boy Chained Up Like A Dog. And The Reason Why Is Even More Heartbreaking.”

Litel traces its shadowy origins to “a trio of young web designers and SEO consultants based in Ohio.” The cynicism behind the group’s various projects says less about journalism than it does for competitors:

When BuzzFeed or Upworthy can be bought off the shelf, the question isn’t really what does that mean to journalism? It is rather, when the number of viral media sites proliferates across the web, what does that mean for BuzzFeed and Upworthy?

Bryan Goldberg (yes, him) picks up a similar theme, asking “How can a web property build deep and meaningful relationships with brands over the course of many years, when their own audience has no consistency?”

Sites built on Facebook shares could “find themselves competing with 30-40 clones who are equally adept at the formula,” Goldberg writes.

BuzzFeed — whose chief executive Jonah Peretti once said of Facebook and his company: “They own the railroad tracks, we drive the trains” — might have diversified beyond such threats with its investments in non-viral content, Goldberg writes.

Neetzan Zimmerman might show how a journalism business model based on viral content could work: The Gawker editor “has found a gap for human intuition in an environment dominated by machines,” Farhad Manjoo writes in a profile. Zimmerman has “somehow cracked the code” of figuring out which posts will go viral.

Zimmerman tells Manjoo he can usually intuit what stories will make Web readers click, to the tune of about 30 million pageviews per month. That traffic “effectively subsidizes the rest of the staff, liberating them to pursue deeper, longer, more experimental pieces,” Manjoo writes. Zimmerman’s success, he says, teaches something that “applies far beyond the news business—if you’re working in an industry being assaulted by computers, your survival depends on becoming a scholar of your fellow humans.”

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