Sun, Jul 20, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Nice Internet sites aim to uplift by sharing caring content

By Sheila Marikar  /  NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

On a bright afternoon, Alex Magnin, chief revenue officer of the Web site Thought Catalog, strolled through Dolores Park in San Francisco, sipping a cup of green tea. Magnin, 29 and clad in a rumpled plaid shirt, was visiting from Brooklyn, where Thought Catalog is loosely based (most contributors work out of their homes), to connect with some of the site’s west coast staff members.

“We happen to have some awesome writers who make stuff people love and can relate to,” he said, blinking into the sun. “We have a vision of building something great and wonderful.”

Magnin is an architect of the nice Internet. Not long ago, the World Wide Web seemed like the wild, wild West, with Perez Hilton scrawling obscenities on people of note and Gawker spitting out blind items capable of ending careers and marriages.

However, in the past couple of years, heartwarming, advice-heavy headlines have mushroomed on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere: “I have a favor to ask. Listen to this beautiful story about male strippers. You’ll thank me later”; “If you can watch these sisters without choking up, you might want to check your pulse. Wow”; “It’s not bad to regret things — it means you cared.”

Anchored by Web sites including Thought Catalog, Upworthy and ViralNova, this is an Internet that aims to lift up, not take down. The amount of content on these sites and others like them on any given day is mind-boggling: One wonders how so many feel-good stories can possibly be happening at the same time.

However, behind their warm and fuzzy veneers, these growing media companies are businesses, and they peddle in uplifting content because they believe it is profitable.

“A lot of it is clicky headlines and shareable headlines, and shareable headlines that play with certain identities or badges that people want to share with their friends to self-represent,” Magnin said.

His site has filled a void: Thought Catalog’s compilation of life advice, nostalgic lists and “betcha didn’t know this” type wisdom drew more than 34 million unique visitors last month, according to Quantcast, a digital advertising and audience measurement firm. By contrast, the Time magazine’s Web site had about 2.6 million unique visitors during the same month, according to Quantcast.

The feel-goodiness is even evident on Google. Throughout the World Cup, data scientists, designers and copywriters working for the search giant looked for quirky, cute search trends to share on its World Cup trends page: for example, creating an “infographic” titled “True Sportsmanship” about Germany’s record-setting win over Brazil even though some of the terms most searched online in the host country were “Brazil defeat” and “shame.”

“Our social channels exist to share interesting and relevant information to the people who want to hear from us,” Roya Soleimani, a Google communications manager, wrote in an e-mail. “Unlike your average 16-year-old, we don’t share every single thing we might have to say.”

“People don’t really want to share bad news even though they’re drawn to it,” said Scott DeLong, the founder of ViralNova, a “shareable stories” Web site that he runs out of his suburban Ohio home.

Every day, DeLong, 32, and a handful of freelancers trawl hundreds of sources looking for stories his readers might want to tell to their friends. They package 20 or more into ViralNova-style posts: lots of photos and captions, with a couple of sentences at the top and bottom.

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