How Facebook could kill the new wave of viral media

December 3, 2013

On Monday, I wrote about what the media can learn from the massive traffic generated by the viral hitmakers at Gawker, Buzzfeed, Upworthy, Viral Nova, and so on. That same day, Facebook announced a change to the news feed that will deemphasize memes and prioritize "high quality articles".

This gets to the downside of writing content designed to go viral on Facebook: You're at the mercy of Facebook's engineers.


(AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)

Twitter is a transparent platform. Tweet something, and it shows up in the streams of your followers, and if they retweet it, it shows up in the streams of their followers, and so forth.

The algorithm powering Facebook's news feed, by contrast, is a black box. No one outside the company knows exactly how it works. Facebook is constantly testing, tweaking, and reworking to ensure that the content users see is the content that keeps them coming back.

A few years back, for instance, it was known in the media that the algorithm penalized news organizations that posted more than three or four times a day. Then Facebook changed its mind: Now news organizations can post 10 or 20 times a day before taking a hit.

The darkest timeline for social media outfits is the one in which they're the beneficiaries of a collective-action problem that Facebook will soon solve.

Facebook headlines are often meant to make it difficult for individuals to resist sharing them. Increasingly, the highest performers are emotionally weaponized. Take this ViralNova post: "She Had To Leave Her Dying Baby’s Side. When You See Why, Your Heart Will Break."

Seeing that post pop up in your news feed is a lot of pressure. Are you such a jerk that you won't take a moment to see the heartbreaking reason this mother had to abandon her dying baby? On the other hand, do you really want to ruin your day with this tearjerker of a video? But what does it say to your friend who shared it if you pass over this post in order to like something about cupcakes?

This is happening to Facebook users constantly now. There's so much more viral content being launched and so much more competition to one-up the last viral headline that the emotional pitch of the news feed has been cranked to 11. And the easiest answer, for individuals, is often to just hit "like" and move on. But if everyone hits like news feeds fill with this content, in part because the algorithm favors content lots of people are liking.

But hitting "like" isn't the same thing as actually enjoying the content. And collectively, everyone "liking" and sharing this stuff to show that they love babies and believe in gay marriage and oppose bullying and appreciate Will Ferrell and all the rest of it could mean news feeds fill with content that users don't actually want to see so much of. Who wants to go to Facebook at all if the experience is so emotionally exhausting? And the moment Facebook begins sensing that this viral content is becoming a problem it'll begin shutting it down.

Facebook's measures are sensitive of course. They can tell the difference between content people automatically share and content that they actually watch, or comment on, or otherwise seem to engage with. So if and when Facebook begins to ratchet back on this new wave of viral content it can do so in ways that separate the really manipulative posts from the ones people actually enjoy. But as a genre, this stuff is flooding into Facebook so fast, and it's so much more effective at getting shared than anything that came before it, that it seems almost certain that there'll eventually be a correction in the algorithm to keep it from taking over news feeds entirely.

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Neil Irwin · December 3, 2013