“Half Way Through This, I Totally Broke Down. I Don’t Want To Spoil It, So Just Get A Tissue And Look.” “This Recently Married Man Just Realized Marriage Is Not For Him. You Have To Read What He Wrote.”
“Congratulations, Viral Nova!” The Awl’s Choire Sicha wrote in October 2013. “You’re HORRIFIC, ILLITERATE and MONSTROUS.”
But now, some 18 months and 34908450984590734 page views later, DeLong wants to go legit. In doing so, he makes a perfect case study for the clickbait economy — and the trends rapidly disrupting it.
“Our strategy has evolved,” DeLong said by phone. “We don’t want to get clicks. We want engagement.”
A tweet he sent (and deleted) at this time last year puts the shift a bit more explicitly: “I regret my part in facilitating the ‘viral’ movement. The headlines are officially out of control. Time for me to move on.”
Of course, the moving-on wasn’t quite so voluntary: ViralNova had to grow up or perish, like many of its contemporaries. The site, together with Upworthy and Distractify and untold hordes of clones, was part of an early wave of clickbait hawkers that exploited what media strategist Colin Nagy once called a “glitch in the matrix”: the fact that, for a short time, Facebook’s News Feed algorithm would reward anyone who found a junk story and put a tear-jerky headline on it.
But in the two years since DeLong started the site from his spare room, Facebook has changed enormously — particularly how it treats clickbait. In December 2013, the site announced its News Feed algorithm would begin zeroing in on “high-quality content,” to the detriment of, say, “This Is Exactly What Happens When You Give a Dog A Selfie Stick (LOL).” In August, Facebook began targeting clickbait mills more explicitly.
[Read more: The truth about Facebook’s ‘war on clickbait’]
DeLong equivocated a bit, in the wake of the Facebook algorithm changes. He spent some time last winter shopping the site around, convinced that running a clickbait shop was not “what I want to do with my life,” as he told Inc’s Jill Krasny. He tweeted first that he had second thoughts about the sale, then that he couldn’t wait to get off the computer. He went to California, then Mexico — for a month and a half.
He emerged from the winter of 2014 with a CEO, Sean Beckner … and something like a plan.
They signed a PR firm, an executive team, an office space in Manhattan; DeLong sold his house and left Ohio in November, tweeting that it was “an unexpected adventure I never thought I would take.” (“I miss it a lot,” he said. “I visit my family there all the time.”) DeLong, who once said he never wanted to be responsible for employees, now oversees an editorial team of 15 in an office of 25. For the past year, the company has maintained a formal relationship with Facebook, even testing some features in partnership with it.
“We’re proactively aligning with them,” DeLong says. “It’s not social publishers vs. Facebook.” (He leaves off the obvious qualifier: “… any more.”)
In the new ViralNova, DeLong no longer finds all the content, or writes all the saccharine headlines himself: Beckner promises they have a suite of in-house and off-the-shelf software for that. A social-tracker called Spike, to which ViralNova subscribes, promises to take the intuition out of virality — meaning it can be manufactured quite formally in an office, without the help of Midwestern oracles trawling their social feeds. (“I do not see the internet as an organic community of shareable ideas packaged in the form of content,” the so-called “Prince of Blogs” Carlos Perez recently wrote on Motherboard. “It is an elaborate arrangement of code strategically pushed into popular mediums to contort your reality.”)
More intriguing than the change of scenery and technique, even, is ViralNova’s insistence that it’s changing its whole clickbait strategy. Tuesday morning, the company announced a new native advertising initiative that will let brands and advertising agencies sponsor content on the site, much as sites like the New York Times and the Washington Post do already.
And ViralNova’s game is no longer writing seductive headlines, DeLong says; he sees the site as a kind of discovery network for little-known photographers and artists, a way to elevate obscure, interesting people to the Internet’s attention.
In some (admittedly dim) lights, ViralNova sounds an awful lot like a traditional media organization.
Meanwhile, traditional media are looking more and more like Viral Nova once did: building “curiosity gaps” into headlines and milking Facebook for every last trembling drop of social traffic. News sites from the Huffington Post to the New York Times have taken hits for baiting readers with overhyped headlines. The biggest Web story of the year began with a photo lifted from Tumblr and a typically overstated, first-person headline: “What colors are this dress? … This is important because I think I’m going insane.”
This is exactly the Internet critics once feared ViralNova would make.
And yet, the story is a bit less doomsday than that; clickbait is converging on the Internet, more so than merely conquering it. Upworthy has insisted its writers fact-check and source every story. Buzzfeed, once frequently mentioned in the same breath as ViralNova, now operates nearly a dozen bureaus and publishes 5,000-word investigations on things like abuse in the foster system.
ViralNova isn’t professionalizing to quite that degree; its lead stories this morning include three road-tripping friends who “do something epic” and “this tiny bulldog does the cutest thing.” Still, DeLong says his writers are finding that content before it trends, themselves — they’re no longer lifting stories from anybody else. Maybe, on some future day, even those godawful headlines will change.
“Everybody does those headlines, now,” DeLong said with a sigh. “It’s kind of sabotaged our approach.”
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