We Wrote a Heartbreaking and Terrifying Post about Viral Content without Lists or GIFs. Then You Clicked on It, and Magic Happened.

As long as people have been publishing, they've been trying to figure out what will make large numbers of people burn with a desire to read the things they're publishing. Like much of the study of human psychology, what we don't yet understand far outweighs what we do understand. But now, with the rise of social media, the search for the perfect formula to make people say both "I have to read that" and then "I have to encourage as many people as I can to also read that" has become an outright frenzy.

Don't worry, this isn't some pretentious "Thus did America descend into the quicksand of triviality, never to return" pronouncement. I'll confess that I watch the number of tweets and Facebook likes all of my posts and articles get, and if a post takes off, I'm pleased. After all, writers want their work to be read by as many people as possible. We do a lot of serious journalism and analysis here at the Prospect, and we understand that much of it will never go viral, but we're no more immune to the desire for eyeballs than anyone else.

But is it getting a little out of hand? Over the weekend, Farhad Manjoo of The Wall Street Journal profiled Neetzan Zimmerman, a blogger for Gawker who seems to have an uncanny ability to write posts that pull in huge traffic numbers. How does he do it? "His secret, he says, is a deep connection to his audience's evolving, irreducibly human, primal sensibilities. Usually within a few seconds of seeing an item, Mr. Zimmerman can sense whether it's destined to become a viral story. 'I guess you could call it intuition,' he says." Which tells us almost nothing, but I suppose if Zimmerman has a deeper understanding than that, he isn't going to share it.

Meanwhile, Buzzfeed (now buzzing: "The 23 Most Important Selfies of 2013") just announced that it had a stunning 130 million unique visitors in the month of November. The latest hot properties in the clickbait wars are Upworthy and Viral Nova, which unlike sites like Gawker and Buzzfeed, exist solely for the purpose of promoting viral content. They've hit on a particular headline formula, one that offers a bit of mystery with the promise of intense emotion if you click. "This 9-year old looked in his grandma's closet. What he found there will make you cry." (I made that one up, by the way.) Let's take a sampling of headlines from today:

"She Had to Leave Her Dying Baby's Side. When You See Why, Your Heart Will Break." (Viral Nova)

"The Poster Is Mesmerizing. The Story It Tells Is Electrifying. Have You Seen It?" (Upworthy)

"Some Guy Showed Up on This Street With Some Chalk. The Result Will Blow Your Mind Into Next Week." (VN)

"My Conservative Father-In-Law Is Going to Hate Me For Finding This One" (UW)

"You'll Never Guess What's At This Spot In the Middle of Nowhere. My Jaw's Still On the Floor" (VN)

"She Was 40 When the Nazis Took Her. Now, She's Outlived Them and Has Something Incredible to Say" (UW)

Despite variations along the continuum from shock to wonder to tears, the message is essentially, "Oh my god look at this right now oh my god now now now!" If someone in real life, like a co-worker or member of your family, burst into the room and shouted that at you, of course you'd stop what you were doing and look. Even on the web, it takes an act of will to resist when you see a headline like that. The danger is that the formula only works for so long. Once you've clicked on a few posts that promised to make you cry or change your view of the world forever but didn't deliver, your default assumption will become that when you see something like that , it means somebody's trying to get you to be a part of something artificial. It's one thing to send something truly inspiring or outrageous to your friends or Twitter followers and brighten their day for a moment, but nobody wants to be a tool of someone else's phony marketing campaign or mean-spirited hoax.

And I think that's the danger for these ventures. The more conscious people become that by passing something along they're not so much participants in a beautiful collective celebration of our shared humanity, but are instead part of an intentionally constructed attempt at content viralization, the less they'll want to be a part of it. Because after all, one of the hallmarks of not just Millennials but the couple of older generations going back at least as far as Generation X is media savvy, or at least the desire for media savvy. We all want to think we're immune to advertising's manipulations and we don't get suckered by even the cleverest marketing campaigns. When you go to Buzzfeed, at least you can say, "This site does real journalism, and they also make a lot of funny lists, and there's no harm in spending a few minutes looking at celebrities' yearbook photos." But on some of these other sites, it's hard not to become aware very quickly that they're trying to enlist you in a campaign. Even if it isn't to sell some new product, at the very least it's a campaign to get other people to come to that page and generate page views and ad revenue. You're no longer a thinking reader, you're an unpaid member of their advertising sales staff.

If this particular model starts to decline, someone else will come up with some other way to pull people to web sites in huge numbers. The human thirst for little bits of humor and emotion is inexhaustible. And I'm pretty sure that lists will always work, because lists are magic.

You may also like